Friday, July 17, 2009

The Great War: American Front - Book Review

The cover declares this book is "the definitive alternate history saga of its time." I have to agree. Harry Turtledove does his expected excellent job of telling a story that could be from a parallel universe. It's history, but not the way you remembered it.

At the beginning of the book, Turtledove sets the tone. It's near the end of the Civil War, but things have not gone well for Lincoln's USA. In fact, they have lost the war. The middle part of the North American continent is split into two nations, USA and CSA. The story line jumps to 1914 and the outbreak of The Great War. But the alliances aren't what you would expect. The Confederate States are joined by England and France. Which means that the USA allies with Germany.

The American Front details the battles between the USA and Canada and between the USA and CSA. President Roosevelt (Teddy) is guiding the USA, while President Woodrow Wilson guides the CSA. Slavery has ended long ago, but blacks are treated poorly in both nations. Armies discover machine guns, tanks, and chlorine gas. Trench warfare breaks out in Virginia, Kentucky and Utah.

Not only are there strange international alliances, there are a couple of intra-national alliances (or at least intra-continental). The Mormons of Utah originally were part of the USA, but they rebelled and tried to secede. Some Indian nations also sided with the CSA and fought against the USA.

Turtledove moves from the USA front lines to the Canadian, then to the CSA, then back again. You look at the war from the view of the soldiers, the workers in the steel mill, plantation owner and plantation workers. Socialism is about to break out and you see the war from a socialist's view.

A good bit of the book deals with the way blacks are treated. There's a lot of foreshadowing to indicate that the next book will focus on this issue as well. It's clear from this and other Turtledove books he believes that part of the reason for the Civil War was States' rights. But he also acknowledges the fact that slavery played a major part and shows that the problems didn't end in 1865.

I was very impressed with the book and have just ordered (thanks to my wife) the sequel and the third book in the series. Race relations have been on my mind a lot recently and all the political talk about socialism from the right wing feeds right into the story line. The book isn't negative on any of this, the reader is left to determine the impact.

Some of the language used in the book will probably offend a great many people. Words that were commonly (but rudely) used in the 1915 time period are used throughout the book. Being set in the middle of a war, there is a lot of profanity as you might expect. And there are some scenes described that would probably warrant keeping kids away (both for sex and violence).

My favorite quote from the book is a real quote from Vegetius of the Roman Empire "Let him who desires peace prepare for war."
I highly recommend the book.


The Lightning Man said...


I am very excited that you are reading this series, as I quite literally DEVOURED these books!

I started with the precursor book, "How Few Remain" and continued the series from there. The series forms one giant alternate timeline from the 1880's to 1945 actually. The idea for the series began with another book he wrote called "Guns of the South", where time travellers from today went back and gave Robert E. Lee a supply of AK-47's.

* How Few Remain (1997)

* The Great War Trilogy
o American Front (1998)
o Walk in Hell (1999)
o Breakthroughs (2000)

* The American Empire Trilogy
o Blood and Iron (2001)
o The Center Cannot Hold (2002)
o The Victorious Opposition (2003)

* The Settling Accounts Tetralogy
o Return Engagement (2004)
o Drive to the East (2005)
o The Grapple (2006)
o In at the Death (2007)

The only one I have yet to read is the final book, "In At The Death".

And if you like his style, he also did the really cool series that was more sci-fi/fantasy, but still ends up paralelling the second world war. It's called the Darkness series.

* 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)

Harry Turtledove is one of the best authors I've ever encountered. I also recommend his books "In the Presence of Mine Enemies", "Days of Infamy", and "End of the Beginning"

Randy said...

Should I go back and read How Few Remain before I read the sequel to to American Front?

Have you read his World War series? It's a little strange. Right in the middle of WWII, beings from another planet drop in and visit. Alliances change and the major countries (Axis and Allies) have to work together. The Jews of Poland would rather work with the aliens that put up with Hitler. I enjoyed the first few books, but grew tired of it by the last few...

Guns of the South was my favorite. Lots of the same feelings about race relations in this book.

The Lightning Man said...

I'm okay with magic and dragons, the fantasy stuff, but aliens and sci-fi stuff isn't my cup of tea, so I didn't read that series.

I do recommend How Few Remain, as it takes place in the years following the Union's defeat and a second conflict between the Union and the CSA in the 1880's starring Teddy Roosevelt no less. It sets the stage of Lincoln being disgraced and turning to Marxism, and events transpire that come to fruition later on, including the emergence of Jake Featherston.

The others that I recommended..."In the Presence of Mine Enemies" takes place in postwar Germany, a good 40 years or so after Germany wins. Ostensibly, all the Jews were eradicated...or were they?

The other two books show Japan not only attacking Pearl Harbor, but invading and taking Hawaii before we start striking back. I really hoped that he'd continue the series, but it seems to have stopped at two books

Cameron said...

Hmmm...this sounds interesting. As a Mormon from Utah I'm intrigued by their inclusion in the storyline.

Randy said...

Cameron, the Mormon "influence" in the book is not insignificant, but it is also *NOT* anti-Mormon. In fact, the author really doesn't talk about the Mormon faith in a positive or negative light.

Some of his characters mention that the Mormons fight harder than the Rebels. Seems like in a battle with the Mormons, there is a hard-line Presbyterian (I think) and some non-believers. But faither (or lack of) is never the central theme.

I don't think you'll be offended, nor do I think it will be a book you quote to others (at least about faith matters).

Cameron said...

When I was a kid I read a lot of Louis L'amour books, and he would talk about Mormon pioneers every once in a while. It's always been fun for me to see how we are perceived by others. I generally take a good natured stance on it, even when it does tend toward the negative.

Randy said...

I had a friend in high school who liked Louis L'amour. I never could get into them.

It would be interesting to see what you think of the treatment of the Mormons in this book. Seeing as how they side with the Rebels and I'm a Southerner, I thought the two groups made a good team!