INTO THE DARKNESS
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although nothing on the book cover indicates it, Into the Darkness is the first of a multi-book series by Harry Turtledove. Turtledove has not yet stated how many books will be in the series, but the first book covers a multitude of wars between the various kingdoms of Derlavai. These wars are modelled after a mixture of World War I and World War II, fought against a semi-feudal background in which magic works. The overall effect is rather strange as the twentieth century technology (here replaced by magical beasts, dragons for planes, behemoths for tanks and leviathans for submarines) vie with a society which places more emphasis on caste than was typical, even in the early twentieth century.
Turtledove has shown his readers the horror of war before, in the "Worldwar" series and the "Great War" series. He does so again in Into the Darkness. What sets this novel apart from the others isn't the stories of the Algarvian, Forthwegian and Unkerlanter troops, rather it is the plots which concern themselves with the magical background of Derlavai. The story of Pekka, the theoretical magician who is trying to discover a Unified Magic Theory which works, or Vanai and her grandfather, Brivibas, the Kaunian scholars who only want to be left to their studies. Even the Unkerlanter peasant Garivald, in a small village far from any action, adds to the specific flavor and character of this strange and magical world.
These stories, however, are played out against the background of a complex series of alliances and battles. Having lost the Six Years' War, Algarve uses the death of the Duke of Bari as an excuse to reclaim his lands, sundered by the treaty ending the previous war. The surrounding kingdoms, many of which were settled by the remnants of the ancient Kaunian Empire, wage war against Algarve to enforce the treaty. Countries which initially remain neutral eventually use the carnage of war to excuse their own attempts to grab land. By the end of Into the Darkness, the political structure of Derlavai has completely changed as institutionalized racism begins to rear its ugly head.
Using so many viewpoint characters, Turtledove is able to look at winners and losers of a wide variety of ranks. Some, such as the haughty Valmieran noblewoman Krasta, seem to get their comeuppance in defeat. Her realization of what defeat means is reminiscent of Turtledove's short story, "Those Who Lose" (War World: Invasion, 1994). Others, like the despotic Unkerlanter king, Swemmel, manage to retain their position despite their shortsightedness. Turtledove even manages to work in the beginnings of a few possible romances between the Algarvians Bembo and Saffa and the cross-racial friendship of the Forthwegian Ealstan and the Kaunian Vanai.
With a cast of characters running to seven pages, Turtledove has elected to use naming conventions to help the reader identify the characters. Forthwegians tend to have Anglo-Saxon names, Lagoans names are based on Portuguese, Italian is the basis for Algarvian nomenclature. The societies which use these names have some ties to their terrestrial counterparts, but Turtledove has been just as careful to mix up their attributes so that any given Derlavaian kingdom is not instantly recognizable as a cognate of the countries which took part in the two World Wars.
While Turtledove hints that there is great magic available to this world, he shows very little of it. Pekka and other theoretical mages are attempting to work to a breakthrough, but their attempts show few results beyond making acorns disappear. Fernao, a first-rank mage, casts spells which seem to be useful cantrips. Magic seems to be involved in the making of eggs (bombs), crystals (radios) and sticks (guns), but these are devices which anyone can use once they are manufactured. Turtledove does explain that magic must have fuel to work, and that fuel can be obtained either from human sacrifice or recently discovered "ley lines," which run throughout the world at seemingly random intervals.
If Turtledove plans to let the "Darkness" series run for six or more novels, he needs to focus more on the non-militaristic subplots in order to keep the books from simply being a tedious recitation of the horrors of war and occupation. At the end of Into the Darkness, the war begun by Algarve seems to have reached a sort of conclusion, although Turtledove has left plenty of room for vengeance and battles between the surviving kingdoms. Fortunately, there are enough interesting plotlines which only deal with the wars tangentially to give Turtledove plenty of room to explore the social dynamics of Derlavai and the magic which resides there.
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