Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: "Hitler's War" by Harry Turtledove

Review - Hitler's War
Hitler's War is my first consciously read Harry Turtledove novel, and I approached it with comparably high expectations. Turtledove has reached a point in writing alternate histories where some seem to consider him the Grand Master of the genre, and there's certainly some justification in such a stance. His successful novels have made the genre a bit more mainstream - and I say that as a compliment - and have given the works of other authors more well-deserved exposure. Having said that, Hitler's War comes with an interesting premise: the war starts early, and it does so over the Czech issues solved IRL in the Munich Agreement. But does it hold up to my expectations? Well, find out.

Republican Troops in the Spanish Civil War
The POD of Hitler's War actually happens earlier than the failure of the Munich Agreement: Jose Sanjuro, one of the main conspirators of the Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War, does not die in a plane crash in July 1936 (historically caused by his desire to carry too much luggage on a plane too small and weak for its additional weight). Subsequently, it is he who becomes the leader of the Nationalists instead of Francisco Franco. By the time the novel's actual plot starts, the Nationalists' position is slightly less advantageous than it had been historically (by the end of 1938 a Republican defeat was foreseeable).

Alas, war breaks out after a Czech nationalist shoots a Sudetengerman politician in Germany and Hitler uses this as a pretext to attack Czechoslovakia. Thing soon dissolve into a grand Battle Royale, with seemingly everybody fighting each other and their families, with Slovaks and Russians and Poles and French and British all going at it while in the Far East the Japanese Empire suffers from a case of the twitchy trigger finger.

The Czech put up a valiant fight but are ultimately doomed. The French do a premature version of the 1939/40 Sitzkrieg, and once the Czechs have been dealt with the Germans go for a fullblown repeat of the "Schlieffen Plan" of the Great War, swinging through Belgium and the Low Countries, bringing the war to France while the Allies and the Russians (who are in the direct aftermath of their officer purge) begin to bomb German cities.

The novel ends with the Wehrmacht deep in France, a failed coup against Hitler, Germany and Poland fighting the Soviets, and the Japanese invading Siberia - and we're always right in the middle of it, watching through the eyes of the men in the trenches.

This also introduces us to Turtledove's narrative approach.

Turtledove tells a grand story using the point of view of the ordinary man or woman. Only in very few cases are historical figures of authority (like Hitler) featured; in fact, except for the commander of an Uboat there's not a single POV character above a noncommissioned rank. This approach has its advantages: the action can often seem closer, more real. more dangerous. It shows the impact of grand strategy on ordinary people. And it allows the author to explore the experiences of fringe characters, for example an American woman stuck in wartime Nazi Germany or a German Jewish family trying to survive in a climate of repression.

That approach can work, but it's never guaranteed it actually does. Here, it doesn't.

Point-of-view characters are all nice and wonderful, but there's just too many of them here! You've got multiple Spaniards, Czech, BEF, French, Russian, American civilian, American Marine, Japanese Army, International Brigades, Germans of all branches of the Wehrmacht, Jewish civilians... In the end, you're burdened with close to 20 POVs and are none the wiser for it. You begin losing track of them - something made worse by the fact that some of them are unpleasant characters - and not only that, in your mind they begin to melt into one great mushy something that might have been a coherent plot at some time: after a while, half the book looks and reads the same: it's always some 75s and 105s firing, some guy smoking and/or sitting in a foxhole in a completely interchangeable place between Bratislava and Madrid. Someone will curse the Jews, propaganda will echo from some radio, and all Russians will drown themselves in vodka. Turtledove draws his characters on a canvas populated by cliches.

I know, the big writing creed is "Show, don't tell". But every piece of cookie cutter wisdom has its limits. If all you do is show without actually telling something, the formula collapses. Or, to formulate it differently: this book is almost completely written on the micro-level of events, and because eight out of ten people fighting in wars are confronted with the same issues, it's all the more boring and confusing at the same time. Bluntly, it lacks a macro-perspective: you never really know what's really going on at any given moment. That makes it nigh impossible to follow events, and even more impossible to actually give a damn about the two dozen cookie cutter characters.

Final Verdict: D+. It's not a terribad book, but it's certainly below average. It lacks the characters and drive of The Afrika Reich, has way more character POVs than Red Inferno: 1945, and doesn't have the excuse of being written by someone new to the genre, like Kaiserfront. It's an interesting premise, but the execution really kicks this one in the bud. The narrative structure is weak, the characters uninteresting, the action repetitive.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree re: viewpoints; not surprisingly, Turtledove's strongest book, in my opinion, is The Guns of the South, which has precisely two viewpoints, each of which serves a very definite purpose: Nate Caudell shows us how AK-47s affect ground combat and the men serving there, and Robert E. Lee shows us how it affects geopolitics and grand strategy.

    Also, books are, fundamentally, about story. Something happens, and then something else happens. Wars are not stories. I found that I lost interest in his Great War series because there was no plot. Apparently, Turtledove felt that "life in wartime" was sufficient to keep my interest. It wasn't.

    Good review, War Blogger. I don't plan on reading this one.


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