I’m beginning to think that Turtledove has tried to make a feast out of a light snack. The idea of World War II starting up early, before either side was really prepared for it, was a good one. But I’m beginning to see that without major, MAJOR twists to the timeline, it doesn’t seem to have much potential for an ongoing series.
This is book five in the “The War That Came Early” series and really, that series should have ended at around book three. Book four tried to produce the major twist to the timeline by having England and France ally with Germany, but by the end of that book, the twist was undone and there were no real consequences. That book could have been skipped entirely without really missing much of anything.
Sadly, so can this one, or at least about 95% of it can. If you want to know what happens, I’ll tell you: one character dies and gets replaced by another, something bad happens in Hawaii (though even that gets brushed aside as more annoying than anything else), and…that’s about it. There’s no real character development, which while not unusual for a Turtledove story, is particularly notable here. Almost every single character is the same place (mentally, physically and emotionally), at the end of the book as they are at the start.
And really, that’s the problem with the series as a whole at this point. Nothing really HAPPENED in this book. Oh, there were plenty of scenes and lots of battles, and of course Turtledove’s problem of telling you the same thing constantly, as well as his problems with telling you the same thing repeatedly, and his problems with constantly giving you information you have already, but there wasn’t much plot.
What’s rather annoying is that Turtledove ignores characters that have plenty of potential to be interesting. Take, as an example, Peggy’s husband, Herb. Peggy gets basically nothing to do in this novel other than sell war bonds and drink. That is not an exaggeration. That is 95% of what her character does in this book. Turtledove clearly has no idea what to do with her at this point, and hasn’t been bold enough to simply write her out.
Her husband, on the other hand…he works for the government. One of his jobs takes him to Tennessee. People who know their WWII history will know what’s significant about that location at that point in time. The outcome of what he does there is rather interesting, and has some fascinating long-term potential, as do his visits out west later on. But we don’t get to actually see any of this. Instead we get him, reluctantly, feeding bits and pieces to Peggy.
How much more interesting would it have been to have Herb as a viewpoint character? To have him actually interacting with some of the people behind the special project that’s happening? In my wildest and wettest, he might have even met, and maybe become friends with, a scientist named Jens Larsen…but, no. That doesn’t happen. Instead we see Peggy getting hit on by George Raft.
Peggy isn’t the only one that doesn’t have much to do. Heck, there’s at least two characters who I kept forgetting even exist until they pop up again in their little segments, but they’re gone quickly, and never leave any sort of an impression.
Aside from the characters, the setting is getting dull and predictable, too. The only real, major, ongoing differences between this timeline and ours is that the US hasn’t yet entered the war in Europe, and the Japanese are engaging in germ warfare. That’s it. Otherwise everything it tottling along like normal. We haven’t even seen any new and interesting weapons turn up. Imagine if the Germans had really pushed their jet fighter program? That could have made for an interesting twist, but, no. The weapons are still basically the same.
There’s still potential for Turtledove to save this series and make it interesting. It’s never going to be as fun as Worldwar, or as intricate and involved as Timeline 191 (which, for all its predictability and flaws, was at least entertaining), but there’s still room for it to really become something neat. I’d love to see something where there’s a successful coup against Hitler and he has to run to Italy, for example. Or something where Germany offers status quo ante bellum, and we then follow the next few years with a very different kind of Cold War from what we had in our timeline. Or even better yet, something totally unpredictable.
But instead I fear that will will happen is the following: by the end of book six, at least one, maybe two, allied cities will get hit by German nuclear bombs (or whatever Turtledove calls them in this series), and by the end of book seven, Berlin and Tokyo will be nuked, too, forcing an Axis surrender and leaving the timeline largely unchanged from that point on. I’d like to think that I’m wrong here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not.