by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When Harry Turtledove began writing fantasies with the Gerin the Fox novels, he created an interesting world based on common fantasy tropes and a knowledge of Medieval history. He brought original ideas to his world of Elabon. He continued this technique with the creation of the lands of Videssos. More recently, Turtledove has begun mining nineteenth and twentieth century history for the basis of his fantasy. His Derlevai novels chronicle a world in which magic works, but which is clearly an analog of World War II with aspects of World War I mixed in. Sentry Peak, the first novel of a projected trilogy, is a similar treatment of the American Civil War. However, while Into the Darkness and Darkness Descending don’t follow the course of history exactly and contain numerous non-combatants, Sentry Peak seems to be a recounting of the battle of Chickamauga with magic replacing the technology used in the nineteenth century.
Perhaps the most clever feature of Sentry Peak is Turtledove’s juxtaposition of names. This is done in a way to relate the fantasy names to the real names, such as Nonesuch for Richmond, General Guildenstern for General Rosecrans, Thraxton the Braggart for Braxton Bragg, etc. Unfortunately, this tends to distract the reader from the plot and characterizations of the novel, causing the reader to mentally replace Turtledove’s names with the historical characters and locations on which they are based. Similarly, the traitors’ battle cry “Provincial Prerogatives,” while cleverly alliterative, does not carry quite the same tone as “States’ Rights.”
Turtledove has provided little depth to his characters, painting their personalities in broad strokes and relying on the reader’s knowledge of their historical models to supply the rest. While this works for Civil War aficionados, the characters will seem flat to the more casual reader. Civil War buffs are also more likely to want to read a straight novel about Chickamauga or an historical work than a thinly disguised fantasy of the battle.
The lack of examination of the civilian realm also highlights the tediousness of battle scenes which have becoming a greater and greater part of Turtledove’s work, from the Great War series to the Derlevai series to portions of the Worldwar/Colonization sequence. While this might come as a pleasure to Turtledove’s military fiction readers, it will only serve to alienate his reader who like to see how he examines civilian culture.
Turtledove has used this mix of history and fantasy several times before, perhaps most successfully in The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, in which he incorporated humor into the examination of how magic (rather than technology) would be used in a mirror culture to our own. His other works, Thessalonica and the Derlevai novels also work, but they provide a cultural background against which battles take place. Sentry Peak is focused entirely on the battles with only the barest glance at civilian culture or even politics.
Furthermore, while the Antebellum may have had some traits in common with feudal society, but making the society explicitly feudal, Turtledove also spotlights the anachronisms of using Civil War strategies with Medieval or early Renaissance technology.With luck, Marching Through Peachtree and the third novel in the series will move further away from the historical record and Turtledove will show more of the society in which his characters move and interact.
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