Reviewed by Steven H Silver
I think my biggest problem with John Barnes's Patton's Spaceship, the first novel in his "Timeline Wars" series, is that the main character does not ring true. According to Barnes, Mark Strang is an highly intelligent art historian turned bodyguard when his mother, brother and wife are killed in a terrorist attack. Strang, however, shows no interest in or knowledge of art. Instead, he seems like a stock Arnold Schwarzenegger-type character who fights and wins against incredible odds.
In fact, Patton's Spaceship seems to owe more to Hollywood shoot-em-up sci-fi than it does to written SF. Many of Strang's decisions and actions seem to be made for no good reason at all beyond moving from one action scene to another, plot being too defined a word to really describe the writing which links the first and last pages of this novel. This is a great disappointment coming from the author of such works as A Million Open Doors and Mother of Storms.
Barnes's villains, whether Closers, Blade of Mercy or Nazi, come across as bumbling fools who have nothing going for them except an innate cruelty. It is difficult to see how any of these groups could be successful, especially when their backing comes from a group which is even more sadistic and incompetent. When Strang manages to team up with an underground cell in Berkeley in a timeline in which the Nazis have invaded America, the underground shows signs of competence, leading to the question of how they have not yet managed to defeat the Nazis.
Barnes shows little of his writing skill, especially when he tries to fill in the historical background of his alternate world for the reader. Explaining that Al, a member of the underground, has written epic poems about their plight, Barnes proceeds to spend an entire chapter summarizing those poems, without even attempting to show the reader what the poetry was like. To make matters worse, it is presented in a straight-forward and dry manner, the worst possible form of info-dump. Furthermore, the history Barnes postulates is so convoluted and nonsensical that his method of expressing it to the reader leaves the reader feeling like Barnes's history is not plausible.
As the first book in a series, Barnes must lay the background for his universe, which he does well. In fact, his background could lead to a rather good series. Before it does, however Barnes needs to jettison his superman main character and replace him with a flesh and blood figure who has knowledge in his own fields (art historian and security) without a much military knowledge as Strang shows (Strang's insistance that he doesn't know as much about military ordinance as he would like since he was never in the military rings hollow against the knowledge he demonstrates at every opportunity). Barnes is writing military SF with this series. As such, he should have given his main character a more militant background.
If Barnes can make his characters and histories more believable, the "Timeline Wars" could turn into an enjoyable series. If he continues to put violence ahead of plot and characterization, these will be books definitely worth a miss.