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After the Downfall by Harry Turtledove

Cover art by David Palumbo

Published by Night Shade Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

One theme that keeps appearing in Harry Turtledove's books can be summed up as "the Nazi who learns better." The character in question is not a hardcore Nazi, but neither is he someone who is purely going along to get along. Rather, there's a congruence between Nazi ideology and the unconscious prejudices and assumptions he's picked up from German culture, and he's never really had to think about what they mean -- until the day someone he loves ends up on the wrong side of the Nuremberg Laws and he is forced to confront what racism and anti-Semitism mean in bluntly personal terms.

For instance, in the Colonization trilogy (followon to the WorldWar tetralogy) we had the pilot whose wife is suspected of having a Jewish ancestor. As he's struggling to get the Gestapo to release her, his confidence about the things he's been brought up to accept as truth has been shaken just enough that he starts questioning the very fundamentals of Nazi ideology.

However, until now this theme has been one relatively minor thread in a much larger novel, and has generally involved a relatively minor character. In this novel Turtledove makes it the entire thrust of a fascinating fantasy that is quite a bit different from his usual fare.

Hasso Pemsel is a Wehrmacht officer in the last-ditch defense of Berlin against Stalin's Red Army. It's a bitter end to a long career which has taken him from the tiny and disgraced army of the Weimar Republic through the drunk-on-success early conquests to overextension and failure. And he knows that his fate won't be a pleasant one if he is captured, since the Soviets don't honor the Geneva Convention.

And then he finds a mysterious artifact in the museum he's tasked to defend in the grim street-by-street fighting. When he plops down on it, he is suddenly thrust into another world, one without any evidence of industrial development. Just as he's getting his bearings, he sees a beautiful young woman running in fear from several short, dark men who are clearly pursuing her with Lustful Intent.

Hasso doesn't think twice, just lets rip with his submachine gun and rescues the Damsel in Distress from her pursuers. In gratitude, she promptly takes him for a tumble. Talk about a guy's fantasies come true.

Then it's off to the nearest castle of her people, as Hasso struggles to learn her language. He's sorted out that her name is Verona, but it's only when one of the local wizards casts a spell on him that he's really able to communicate enough to learn that the Lenelli, Velona's people, are in a war against the Grenye, the aboriginal inhabitants of this land. They're the short, dark people who were originally pursuing Velona. They form the peasant class of the Lenelli kingdoms, but to the east they still have their own realm, Bucovin, which has remained stubbornly independent in spite of grossly inferior culture.

All of this fits quite nicely with the beliefs Hasso brought with him from Nazi Germany. If anything, the Lenelli are so much an embodiment of the Aryan ideal of Nazi propaganda that the average German would find it hard to live up to it. So he's quite glad to throw his lot in with them when the local king offers him the position of Security Minister, using his advanced knowledge to stop the continual leakage of information to Bucovin. Of course the fact that Velona has taken him on as a permanent lover helps in that decision.

However, there are some wrinkles in his situation. Velona is the embodiment of the goddess the Lenelli worship -- although most of the time she is just herself, there are times the goddess takes her over and uses her as a focus of power. And four times a year the king must ritually bed the goddess to ensure the strength and health of the kingdom. Not exactly something Hasso likes having to see, since it's done in the public square.

But they're annoyances, and he tries not to think too hard about them. Better to concentrate on beating Bucovin, and figuring out why Lenelli magic won't bite as one forges deeper into that frustrating country. (Of course the magic of this world seems to be primarily useful for war, rather than for practical life-improvement -- the cities still stink like any medieval city, and they're probably population sinks, although Turtledove doesn't dwell upon this overmuch). So Hasso rides along with the army as they make their drive into Bucovin.

And that gives him a ringside seat for the atrocities the Lenelli commit in several hamlets along the path. Hasso doesn't participate, but he doesn't try to restrain the troops either. Part of it is simply the practicalities of a situation in which he's only marginally integrated into the command structure, but part of it is his having absorbed the Lenelli attitude that Grenye only understand force, and they need to be handled harshly to get them to submit.

Yet he's not entirely comfortable with the situation, for he keeps remembering the atrocities the Wehrmacht committed on the way into the Soviet Union, and how the Red Army has repaid it with interest on the way back. And it's with those doubts gnawing at him that he's lured into an untenable situation and captured.

Suddenly he's on his way to the Bucovin capital of Falticeni to meet their ruler, Lord Zgomot. And it's those doubts that make it possible for him to assist the Grenye, even as he feels more kinship with the Lenelli. But still he's not entirely sure he likes what he's doing. It's one thing to think of the Russians as human beings rather than mere Untermenschen, but while the vastness of Bucovin makes him think of Russia, the short and swarthy Grenye with their dark hair and hooked noses makes him think of Jews -- and along come all the ugly stereotypes that the Nazis have been promulgating of greedy, grasping Jews.

But even if Hasso could escape and return to the Lenelli, would they take him back? The visions that haunt his dreams are indicating otherwise, for Verona is a jealous lover, and Hasso accepted certain hospitalities from his captors that she does not appreciate. So his only future may well lie with Bucovin, which means keeping Lord Zgomot convinced he really has switched sides. And that means giving them new tricks to win battles against the Lenelli.

I liked the way that Turtledove avoided simplistic one-to-one equivalences in his worldbuilding. For instance, the Grenye may represent the Jews, but they are not simply Jews transposed into another world with some name changes. For instance our first glimpse of their religion is of a priest taking an animal from a worshipper to be offered on the altar, perhaps as a thank offering or a sin offering -- terms that immediately bring to mind the various sacrifices enumerated in Leviticus. However, the religion of Bucovin is not simply a fantasy version of Levitical Judiasm -- the Grenye are polytheists, worshipping a multitude of gods and goddesses, and they have priestesses as well as priests, in contrast to the Aaronic priesthood, which was strictly male. Similarly, the goddess worship of the Lenelli may have certain echoes of modern Paganism -- particularly the rite in which all the congregants respond with "so may it be" to each of the leader's statements -- it is a monotheist goddess worship in which the unnamed goddess is the only deity recognized or worshipped (although the fact that she's embodied in a very real and present woman may help prevent the accretion of additional deities).

As a result of refusing to create any one-to-one equivalencies, Turtledove forces us to focus upon the morality of the characters' actions. He even lets us know early on that some Lenelli have switched sides, but through the voice of a Lenelli who condemns them as renegades -- thus leaving us to wonder why they switched sides -- if the Grenye are so backward as the Lenelli claim, what would a Lenelli stand to gain by joining forces with them?

Review posted May 10, 2009

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