AFTER THE DOWNFALL
by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although best known for writing alternate histories, Harry Turtledove has also written numerous fantasies and science fiction novels, although his use of historical modeling often results in his books being mislabeled alternate history by those who don't actually look at them. Many of his novels pay homage to the authors who Turtledove grew up admiring, from L. Sprague de Camp, to Robert Heinlein, to H. Beam Piper, to Fletcher Pratt. With After the Downfall, Turtledove pays homage to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions.
While Anderson's Holger Carlson is whisked away from an occupied Denmark, where he is fighting the Nazi invaders, Turtledove's Hasso Pemsel is a German Captain retreating through a battle-torn Berlin as the Soviet army comes relentlessly onward. When he sits on a mythical "Omphalos" stone in Berlin's Old Museum, he finds himself on a country road watching three untermenschen chasing a gorgeous blonde woman. He rescues her and discovers that she is Velona, the living embodiment of the goddess of the Lenelli.
Accorded all the honors due someone who has saved a goddess, Pemsel quickly finds himself at the top of the Lenelli society, confident of King Bottero and Velona's lover. The fact that the Lenelli are a tall, Aryan race who rule over the swarthy natives of the land only serves to reinforce Pemsel's belief that he had found himself in the right place. He quickly begins to work with Bottero, Velona, and the Lenelli wizards to plan the invasion of Bucovin, the last holdout of the native Gremye on the continent.
Although the war between the Lenelli and the Gremye is one of the primary focuses of the novel, Turtledove also allows Pemsel to introduce what military strategies and technologies he can, just as Holgar Carlson did in Three Hearts and Three Lions or Martin Padway did in L. Sprague de Camp Lest Darkness Fall. However, the real crux of the book is Pemsel's journey from being a German soldier who followed the orders given him by Der Führer and the Reich and begin to look at the situation differently. Only slowly is Pemsel able to break the conditioning he has had forced on him for the previous dozen years and begin to see not only the Reich's mistakes, but also his own.
Hasso Pemsel is an outsider to both kingdoms he visits, which would normally place him in a perfect position to give the reader a guided tour of the strange culture as he learns more about it. However, the positions he finds himself in...savior, invader, prisoner, etc. are not particularly conducive to providing Pemsel with a deep look at the way these cultures are put together. Turtledove focuses on the areas Pemsel can see...the aristocracy, priesthood, and military, but beyond that the reader is only treated to dribs and drabs of Lenello and Gremye society.
Turtledove's focus on Hasso Pemsel allows an interesting counterpoint to his early cross-world transportation series, "The Videssos Cycle." In the former book, Turtledove has a variety of characters he examines and spends more time portraying the society into which they have found themselves thrust. Pemsel must (successfully) carry After the Downfall on his own, partly, perhaps, because Turtledove spends the necessary time to get into his head, even if it as the expense of extrapolation of the world in which he finds himse.f
After the Downfall works as a both an homage to Anderson and, more importantly, as a look at how someone who is associated with a vile group can overcome his conditioning, even if he doesn't realize that there is anything wrong with his outlook to require him to reconsider what he thinks he knows. Despite Pemsel's links to the Wehrmacht, Turtledove is able to portray him in a sympathetic light, focusing on his desire to do the best he can, and a strong sense of loyalty and honor.
While After the Downfall is a self-contained novel, Turtledove does allow himself the leeway to write a sequel if he so desires. His world is interesting enough, although not fully explored. Pemsel's relationship with Velona is left up in the air enough to allow for further exploration on both a personal level and a diplomatic level. Furthermore, Pemsel is just coming into his own in the new society, and with the new mores, of the world in which he has found himself.
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