Harry Turtledove has proven time and again that he’s a really great storyteller, especially when it comes to working with history. Though he’s written straight historical novels like Fort Pillow and (as H N Turteltaub), the Hellenic Traders series, he’s best known for writing alternate history novels which frequently expand into massive series.
The War That Came Early: The Big Switch, is the third in a series where World War II, well, comes early. For those not up on the series, it starts when France, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom stand up to Germany after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 rather than waiting until the invasion of Poland in 1939. The result is that the war begins before both sides are really ready.
This leads to a very different sort of war than what we’re used to. Fascists and Republicans continue to fight in Spain, Germany faces off against the UK and France (which does not fall as it did in our world), while also invading the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway, Japan invades Siberia and lays siege to Vladivostok, and Poland allies with Germany against Russia, leaving Germany no place to build their planned extermination camps. Something that would be hard to do anyhow, since Poland isn’t interested in killing off their Jews. And through it all the United States sides on the sidelines and waits…
As this book begins, it is 1940 and we get updated on the various characters from the previous books. These include an American civilian stuck in Stockholm, a British soldier on an island off Norway, a Russian pilot from the Caucasus, a Czech fighting in the French army, an American Jew fighting in Spain, a German panzer soldier, as Jewish woman living in Germany, an American Marine in Shanghai, a Japanese soldier in Siberia and others. Like any Turtledove book, there’s no shortage of viewpoint characters.
Some of these characters and their stories are more interesting than others. My favorite thus far is Peggy, the American woman who just wants to get home after getting stuck in Europe far longer than she’d expected. Others, like the German panzer soldier and the Japanese soldier, are less interesting and I didn’t care nearly as much for their stories.
And that’s something of a failing for the series as a whole. While I didn’t care about or for every character in the Worldwar or Timeline 191 series, I did at least find almost all of them interesting. It helped that, especially with the Timeline 191 series, I had quite a lot of time to get to know them, both in and out of combat. Even by the end of this book, which is, as I mentioned, third in the series, I don’t feel that I know all the characters nearly as well as I should, though one that should make some readers happy is that we don’t get nearly as much detail about the characters sex lives as we did with some of Turtledoves’s other works (something I never had a problem with, but I understand why people don’t much care for Mark Twain slash fiction).
On the other hand, Turtledove has done an excellent job of overcoming one of the serious problems with Timeline 191, and that’s the predictability. In that series, we knew pretty much from the start of the Great War where things were going to go, and there wasn’t a single really major surprise.
In this series, however, things aren’t nearly so predictable, and the surprises are many, including the fate of one of England’s most well-known politicians and the “big switch” that gets mentioned in the title.
Ultimately this book, and this series, are an interesting read with a good premise, and even if the characters aren’t what I want them to be, I really do look forward to seeing what happens with them, even if I have to wait another year to do so.