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What if World War 2 started in 1938? That's the premise presented in Harry Turtledoves latest alternate history story.
Harry Turtledove is the master of alternate history; his books take those pivotal moments in history and look at what might have happened. We've had alternate first world wars with two American countries fighting each other, the Spanish Armada taking control over England in 1588. Turtledove has also written alternate history with a more science fiction angle in his colonization series which is series of books looking at an invasion from space by a race of lizards; they arrive just at the start of the Second World War. He has transplanted real events into a fantasy setting with his Darkness series which echoes the Second World War but with dragons and unicorns. His writing style is to have about 10 main characters that have a section to themselves and through their experiences the story is told. The characters are always first person and usually in each series there are one or two 'real' people only placed in alternate settings.
So what would have happened if rather than 1939 the Second World War starts in 1938? Well the novel begins with the famous conference between Chamberlain and Hitler which in reality led to Chamberlain bringing back that piece of paper which he claimed had the peace of Europe assured. Here Chamberlain and Hitler argue and Chamberlain returns home without the agreement, so Hitler invades Czechoslovakia and the war starts a year earlier.
That's the premise; pretty soon we are introduced to a set of English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, Spanish and Belgian characters. All are first person perspectives and all are involved in the upcoming events, they describe what might have happened if Germany invades Czech in 1938 and ally itself with Poland rather than Russia. The Spanish civil war is still ongoing and the novel opens with that conflict, the war erupts and soon Germans are fighting Frenchmen, fighting English and Russians fighting Poles. There is U-boat action and the battles between Russian and Japanese forces, as of this moment Americans are absent.
So we are in an alternate history, unlike normal Turtledove novels there is an absence of a real figure from history and we are presented with a set of stories about battles on land and in the sea. This is obviously one of Turtledoves loves; he tends to set his novels in a period of mechanisation so we have plenty of tank and ship battles. This is by my reckoning his fourth attempt at re-writing the second world war after his colonisation, world war and darkness books and he is starting to repeat himself.
His use of many but no main characters works at some levels but here the characters are ill-formed and the reader doesn't really grasp why they should care about German troops, French troops, Russian err troops and Spanish troops when they are virtually the same person only set in different settings. All are in their 20-30's, privates or at best corporals and have the same disregard for their officials. They are also distrustful of the opposition and tend to say the same things, so we encounter descriptions of how machine gunners never get a fair deal, how ammunition in burning tanks always 'cooks off' and every character drinks too much and eats not enough.
So after the brilliance of his civilisation series and his ok world war novels this is a set of novels too far, in truth it's too close to the world war setting except we don't have any Americans but have very real Nazi's, fascists, communists and allies.
The story Turtledove wants to tell us that if the war started a year earlier that rather than the blitzkrieg we'd have a kind of fast moving version of world war one. So we are placed into the meat grinder, a phrase Turtledove loves and are presented with stories of horror and the evil of war. How these novel panes out only Turtledove knows but I'm predicting that the Germans will do well until they try to take a large city and get one of their armies wiped out. I'm predicting either Paris or London as the place for this event as an obviously analogy to Stalingrad.
Will I read the sequels? Maybe but I'll be getting them out of the library and not buying them because I feel as though I've read them before.