Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Having explored the alternate history of World War II in the "Worldwar" series, Harry Turtledove now turns his attention to an alternate World War I in "The Great War" series, beginning with American Front. This series actually began in 1997 with the release of How Few Remain, Turtledove's branch point occurred when the Confederacy won their freedom from the United States. Set fifty years after the War of Seccession, the United States and the Confederate States are bitter enemies. With the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the Great War begins with the USA allied with the Germans against the CSA, Canadians, British and French. The majority of the action in this first novel (of a projected four book series) is set, as the title implies, in North America.
American Front is not as successful as the "Worldwar" series or How Few Remain. Although the action starts almost immediately, Archduke Ferdinand's assassination occurs by page 15, Turtledove doesn't give any feel of a lead-in to the war. Once Ferdinand is killed there are suddenly armies fighting across Canada, Kentucky and the West. Because of this, the reader doesn't have a feeling for what this war is about nor any idea of the reactions of the main characters as the tension mounts.
As he did in the "Worldwar" series, Turtledove uses several historical figures in American Front, although fewer of them are identifiable from our own timeline. Teddy Roosevelt makes an appearance as the President of the USA while Woodrow Wilson has managed to become the corresponding President of the CSA. George Armstrong Custer has become a general since the events of How Few Remain and leads the attack into the Confederate state of Kentucky. L. Frank Baum makes a brief appearance as a US Army pilot. This is a good thing. After fifty years of historical divergence, many of the people who were born after 1862 in our own world would not have been born in the world Turtledove postulates.
Turtledove's character population seems larger in American Front than in the Worldwar series with the result that his characters frequently aren't "on stage" for long enough periods of time to fully engage the readers. Some of the characters manage to overcome this obstacle, such as the Negro butler Scipio or Boston fisherman George Enos. Others, however, seem to come and go with a brevity which makes it difficult to keep their stories, or even their national affiliations, straight.
The most interesting characters are those for whom the war tends to be a distant distraction. The aforementioned Scipio lives on a southern plantation far from the fighting, yet must deal with the communist tracts by Marx, Engels and Lincoln which are being circulated among the Black Confederate population. Living on a farm in American-occupied Manitoba, Lucien Galtier's efforts to stay alive through the Canadian winter and the American occupation hold the readers interest. In New York, communist Flora Hamburger looks on her party in horror as Communist senators such as Eugene Debs fail to live up to her expectations of the revolution.
The sections of the novel which deal most directly with warfare, whether in a recon airplane, a field hospital or on the lines in Kentucky, while important to the novel, tend to be drawn out and feel like a rehash of battle scenes Turtledove has described in earlier works. They lack the freshness they had when fought in Guns of the South or the more recent Fox and Empire. However, perhaps moreso than any other work Turtledove has turned out, these scenes demonstrate the horrors of war as soldiers deal with gas attacks, Molotov cocktails and other atrocities.
Some of Turtledove's characters also seem to have come from earlier books, not entirely, but at moments when they'll comment that wishing won't make things happen the way they want. This is a realization which comes to many of Turtledove's characters in a variety of milieu. While Turtledove himself has pointed out that his main characters have many of the same traits, having them make the exact same point in various books highlights their interchangability.
While Turtledove realistically portrayed the 1860s in Guns of the South and the 1940s in "Worldwar," his portrayal of the 1910s does not seem to have as much texture. Although the scene in a Honolulu brothel is based on an actual Hawaiian whorehouse, it is reminiscent of a similar scene in Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance while several of the battle scenes have more the flavor of Turtledove's How Few Remain than the feel of Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.
Turtledove has overcome some of the difficulties in How Few Remain. In that novel, the characters continuously referred to the superiority of the USA's economy and military, but the reader was never shown any proof that such superiority existed. In American Front, mention of United States superiority is toned down, replaced by reminiscences of two wars lost to the Confederacy, yet their stronger position is obvious throughout the entire novel.
Turtledove also has gotten beyond the need for lengthy expositions in which his characters reflect on their world's history to demonstrate how it differs from our own. The set-up for his divergence is handled in a brief prologue between Abraham Lincoln and English ambassador Lord Lyons, as well as the novel How Few Remain.
Many of the situations which Turtledove defined in How Few Remain also come into play in American Front, making this novel a more direct sequel than previously advertised. Having soundly thrashed the Mormons in the earlier novel, the US is now finding that some Mormons are forming a sixth column against what they see as US oppression. Similarly, the North America in Turtledove's world is more ready for a socialist revolution than in ours as racial and class hatred is more ingrained.
The hope remains that "The Great War" series will find its own voice in future volumes and take on a flavor of its own, separate even from How Few Remain, which serves as a prologue to this longer work. The Great War: American Front ends in midstream, more obviously part of a larger work even than Turtledove's "Worldwar" series. While Turtledove still needs to find a voice to this period, "The Great War" series shows every sign of increasing in scope and complexity.
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