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American Empire: Blood and Iron

By Harry Turtledove

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The American Empire trilogy, of which Blood and Iron is the first (the volume title refers to a quote by German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, architect of the German Empire), continues the story of a world in which the South won the Civil War and was able to maintain its independence with the help of an alliance with France and Britain. As a result, the United States has turned to an entangling alliance of its own with the German Empire, seeing in the militaristic traditions of the Prussians a hope for stopping the pattern of being served humiliating defeats.

However, all those entangling alliances only ensured that it would take only a single spark to drag the entire industrialized world into an all-consuming war. And when that war came, it would be fought on American soil as well as European, with a long line of trenches cutting through the heart of what was once a great nation , a City on the Hill that shone an example of democracy to the world. The Great War may be over, but it has resolved little. If anything, it has only sown new resentments, new hungers for vengeance.

In occupied Canada, a farmer's grief for his executed son has turned to abiding hatred, which he now nurses in a passion for assassination. His target -- General Custer, who in this strangely changed world is an aging but powerful military hero, even if his heroism is almost entirely the result of image management. Ironically enough Custer's chief of staff would be just as glad to be rid of the man, but the successful assassination of a senior military officer will result in harsh reprisals from this Prussianized United States. And those reprisals will harm far more innocents who only wanted to live their lives quietly and ignore politics.

In the defeated Confederacy, tormented by rampant inflation since its economy was gutted by the burden of harsh reparations, Jake Featherstone goes from minor rabblerouser to a serious candidate for the Confederate Presidency. The central planks of his Freedom Party platform include returning Negros to "their place" (in other words, legalized subjugation little better than slavery) and revenge against the wealthy political families who are perceived as having betrayed the Confederate cause. His rhetoric begins to sound steadily more like that of a certain German politician of the era in our own world, and it falls on ears made all too receptive by very similar political and economic conditions.

In the victorious United States, things are changing. Upton Sinclair (in our timeline the author of The Jungle, which led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration), has been elected to the Presidency, the first Socialist to hold that position. He has begun a campaign of reconciliation on the grounds that the workers of the two countries have enough in common to bind them together, but that does not mean that all agree with him. In fact, many veterans and families who lost soldier sons, brothers, and husbands believe that he is busily gutting all the gains won by US soldiers.

Although there are plenty of parallels with post-WWI Europe of our own world, Turtledove does not simply produce a cheap recasting of that period. For instance, although Jake Featherston bears many similarities to Adolf Hitler and the Freedom Party can be compared to the Nazis, one cannot simply go down the line of his followers and equate them with Goering, Hess, Himmler, etc. Instead, Turtledove has taken a very thorough look at the characters and social forces at work in his alternate world and seen how they would play out to create a world where a charismatic demagogue would rally the South's latent hatred of the very people whose labor was once the source of their prosperity.

On the other hand, that slow and patient development of an alternate world can also be considered the book's chief weaknesses. For someone who wants brisk pacing and tight plotting, Blood and Iron is nothing but an extended bridge carrying us from their world's version of World War I to their version of World War II. The pieces could clearly be seen in the end of Great War: Breakthroughs, so at most all that would be necessary would be a brief summary of the events of the interwar years as a prolog to the first volume of the alternate-World War II novel.

However, if you like a roman fleuve in which each character's story is permitted to unfold at its own pace and we are allowed to wander through the back roads of the world instead of being force-marched to our destination, this is a story you will enjoy. Except for a brief expository introduction, the world is richly and subtly realized entirely through the eyes of characters who take it for granted, and the differences are inferred as much as presented.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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