Friday, April 20, 2012

Review: "The Darkness Series" by Harry Turtledove

Guest review by Chris Nuttall.

Into the Darkness (1999)
Darkness Descending (2000)
Through the Darkness (2001)
Rulers of the Darkness (2002)
Jaws of the Darkness (2003)
Out of the Darkness (2004)

The Darkness series can be summed up in one sentence; its World War Two fought out with magical weapons on a fantasy background.

I mean it. If you have any knowledge of World War Two, you will be able to predict the course of this book with complete accuracy. There are some minor changes, yet somehow none of them have effects that are different from World War Two. Everything from the Holocaust to the Battle of Stalingrad has its equivalent within the Darkness tomes. It’s probably easier to think of the Darkness world as being based around a radically different tech base to our own, rather than straight-up magic. People do not get turned into frogs, nor are there curses (although there are suggestions of curses), teleportation and other standard fantasy fare. That said, there are little spells that work like standard magic spells, including one that disguises a person. The universe is not always consistent.

The Darkness world, in some respects, is quite like a fantasy world. Instead of aircraft, there are dragons; instead of submarines, there are leviathans; instead of tanks, there are behemoths. (The front covers of the UK editions of the books have very classical images of them.) Ships sail on ley lines and use them for power, as do the Darkness counterpart of railways. Military tactics are slightly warped because of these requirements – the lines, unlike our railways, are not built by humanity. Some of the places of power allow greater magical works to be performed. Magic sometimes works badly in isolated countries. The exact capabilities of the magic are never precisely determined.

The politics of the Darkness world are our own of 1940-45, seen through a glass darkly. There are some odd points – ‘Japan’ is at war with ‘Russia,’ ‘Britain’ doesn’t join the war until ‘Norway’ is invaded – yet it is recognisably WW2. (One of the more annoying points is that most of the nations are fairly identical.) They are all aristocratic states – the hints of socialism never seem to take flight – and the rulers are all fairly typical standard fantasy types. There’s the noble lord who carries on the fight after his nation is defeated and the spoilt brat of a princess who gets into bed – literally – with the invaders.

As is fairly typical for Turtledove, the story follows a vast array of characters as they make their way through the war. I really cannot list all of them now, although I do admit that Turtledove does a good job of leaving them all separate, with different identities. Their mere survival cannot be guaranteed either – quite a few of them die in the course of the story, only to be replaced by their best friend as POV character. Don’t get too attached to anyone.

My main gripe with the series is that it is FAR too close to WW2. This results in considerable logic-bending. Turtledove would, I feel, have been wiser to take the country he devised, think through the implications more carefully, and allow events to run on their own path. Instead, the promising hints of interesting and eccentric magic are pushed aside to ensure that events follow a WW2 timeline that makes little sense in their world. The past history of the Darkness world doesn't match up with OTL, yet we are expected to accept that it led to the same place. Turtledove shows plenty of imagination in this series, but so much of it is in the wrong place.

The series does have its good and interesting moments, yet it offers little new for the discerning reader.

[Editor's Note: If you do happen to purchase the Darkness series after reading this review, do yourself a favor and buy a used paperback/hardcover.  Even with shipping it is still cheaper than the e-books.]

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Chris Nuttall blogs at The Chrishanger. His books can be found on Amazon Kindle.

1 comment:

  1. Harry apparently did a bunch of research on WWII for his "Worldwar" series, then went, "heck, why waste it?" and used it in another three, four series.

    Pretty much did the same with his Civil War research for "Guns of the South" too. Harry, it seems, likes recycling historical research...

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