Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Hundreds of alternate history novels about the American Civil War have been written, ranging from Peter G. Tsouras's Gettysburg: An Alternate History in which the North wins a more decisive victory to Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South, which sees an independent Confederacy emerge from the war. Some books, such as the Tsouras, focus on the military aspects of the war, while books like Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee look at the social ramifications. Although set firmly during the war, Harry Harrison's novel Stars and Stripes Forever, the first of a proposed trilogy, examines the political changes caused by his point of divergence.
For his branch point, Harrison has elected to use the Trent Affair, in which Charles Wilkes, an American Captain, stopped the British mail carrier Trent and seized two Confederates who were on their way to England to seek British assistance. In our world, Prince Albert helped diffuse the affair shortly before his death. In Harrison's world, Albert becomes ill before he can do anything to alleviate the political situation. Harrison does a good job with his divergences. A month and more after his branch, affairs are only beginning to make their effects known. There is definitely a path of divergence and events do not simply change instantly based on Albert's premature illness.
When the British accidentally attack Confederate forces instead of Yankee forces, the entire situation changes. This, alone, would set Stars and Stripes Forever apart from most of the alternate Civil War novels published. Following these changes, Harrison focuses on the reactions in Washington, Richmond and London, with an occasional side trip to one of the various fronts.
Harrision jumps around, using several viewpoint characters to tell his story, some Confederates, some British, some Unionists. Nearly all of his characters are historical figures and all of them have roles in the governments or armed forces. None of the characters are particularly well defined, but this is not a major problem. Harrison is dealing, for the most part, with figures well-known (at least in broad outline) to his readers. Any characterization Harrison would attempt would have to take the readers' biases into account or seem off-the-mark.
This is quite definitely a political history, not a social one. Although Harrison includes a few battle scenes, he does so only to help provide some background for the story, not because he is particularly interested in describing the battles of the Civil War. This is a nice change of pace from such recent alternate histories as Turtledove's How Few Remain or even S.M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time, which focused a little too much on the technical aspects of his world. If Stars and Stripes Forever is lacking anything, it is the social implications of Harrison's changes.
Stars and Stripes Forever has been declared the first of a trilogy, although it is reasonably well-contained, internally indicating that it will have a sequel only in the last few lines of the novel. If Harrison had not chosen to include those lines, there is no reason the reader could not have read Stars and Stripes Forever without any hint that the story would be continued. This novel stands on its own quite well. With luck, the future books in the series will do so as well.
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