American Empire: The Victorious Opposition by Harry Turtledove
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In this volume Harry Turtledove winds up the connecting trilogy which links his Great War trilogy with the tetralogy that describes that world's equivalent to World War II. It continues to have the same problems that have plagued the first two volumes of the American Empire trilogy, namely that they are all an extended bridge that really doesn't move the story forward that much. However, the masterful portrayal of all the characters as individual human beings makes us care about them and their lives to the point that we are willing to join them on their journeys of life.
The novel begins with the election of Jake Featherston to the Presidency of the Confederate States of America. Embittered by the Confederate defeat in the Great War, which he blamed upon the Black Red uprising that diverted Confederate military strength against the war effort against the US, he has made a career of fanning the flames of people's racism. Although he fills the narrative space of a Hitler figure, he is not merely a Southern version of the man whose name has become synonymous with evil in our world. He has his own complex and troubled inner life, full of bitternesses and insecurities that have driven him to rise above his own mediocrity.
And once he comes to power, he begins to test the boundaries of what he can get away with. But unlike Hitler, who had to play several European powers off against one another, Featherston faces a single monolithic enemy: a United States that has abandoned its position as City on the Hill and has strengthened itself through an entangling alliance with the German Empire and its Prussian military elite. Thus his only hope is to exploit its own internal divisions.
And divisions the United States have in abundance, for all that it has embraced an alliance with a nation that tends to regard democratic government as a convenience, a set of surface programs for show rather than a guiding principle. For instance, the US still has two real political parties that have actual differences of policy. The Democrats base their platform upon the perpetuation of the vengeance that was won in the Great War, while the Socialists hearken to the unity of all workers in all lands to uplift the downtrodden. Furthermore, the Mormons of Deseret have never been reconciled to US rule, and have carefully nursed their resentments of the punishing repressions that have followed each of their attempted revolts.
And each of these threads of the complex skien of history are seen through the eyes of people who have their own personal concerns, which often take precedence over the chronicling of history. For instance, Sylvia Enos made herself famous by avenging her husband's death at the hands of a Confederate submarine captain who fired his torpedos after the armistice was declared, but now her rocky personal relationship with the ghostwriter of her autobiography (who is never explicitly stated to be Ernest Hemmingway, although the clues are clear enough for those who know how to read them) comes front and center. Similarly, Flora Blackford, nee Hamburger, made her fame as the first Jewish woman to win a seat in the US House of Representatives, but now even her role as a former First Lady begins to take a back seat to her relationship with her son, who wants desperately to be a man in a world that is increasingly becoming dangerous to the futures of young men.
For it is clear that there will be yet another war, and it will be even more terrible than the last one. Jake Featherston is willing to roll double or nothing, and he thinks he can beat the United States in one mighty blow, particularly if he can wring as many peaceable concessions out of them first.
If you want stories that are tightly plotted and moves along briskly, you will be frustrated and annoyed by this book. But if you are the sort of person who loves to visit a familiar other world that exists for itself and get to better know the people in it, who have lives of their own that don't necessarily march briskly along to a set goal, and if you have been getting to know Dr. Turtledove's characters in the previous volumes and really care about them, you will enjoy this one as well.
Review posted January 15, 2009
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