Thursday, 25 August 2011

Instant awesome, just add armour (The Great War: Breakthroughs)


Welcome back for the final round of alternate-history Great War mayhem! I complained at length that Walk in Hell, the previous volume in the series, spent six hundred pages spinning its wheels, but I knew the pay-off was rumbling over the hill, blowing smoke and soot, blazing away with cannon and machine guns. Oh yes, it's barrel time!

'Barrels', indeed: for Turtledove had the ingenious idea of renaming those steely beasts of battle, although the British term, 'tanks', is also sometimes used. They turn out to be crucial in deciding the outcome of the war, and boy, do I like how Turtledove goes about this. By War Department doctrine, the US deploy barrels evenly spaced along the front. General Custer, commander of First Army in Tennessee, defies this not out of great strategic insight, but because of his oft-proved incompetence.

Custer, you see, has been well established as your standard 'attack, attack, attack' commander since How Few Remain. In previous books, First Army has suffered terrible losses thanks to his pigheaded offensives against entrenched enemy positions. Now, however, Custer seizes on the unorthodox ideas of Colonel Irving Morrell (a character I like, with a name allusion I can't stand), who wants to deploy barrels en masse and drive armoured spearheads through enemy lines. Presented with the opportunity to wield a really large sledgehammer against the Confederacy, Custer assents, First Army breaks through, and the Confederate defence of Nashville is shattered.

The descriptions of armoured warfare are very much the best part of Breakthroughs, giving the volume a dynamism sorely lacking in Turtledove's previous effort. I mean, how awesome are barrels? (Don't answer that. Obviously we should abolish war as soon as possible, &c.) But it's not just in Tennessee that the front is moving again. In the eastern theatre, the Confederates are driven back into Virginia. In the Trans-Mississippi and Canada, too, Entente forces are losing ground rapidly. As the war draws towards a conclusion, the Confederates are attempting to negotiate peace with honour, while Roosevelt is pushing for a harsh diktat.

The characters are stronger, too. In American Front, Gordon McSweeney was part annoying, part offensive to me as a Christian; in Breakthroughs, he is badassery incarnate in one man. He singlehandedly captures and kills dozens of enemy soldiers, destroys a tank with a flamethrower and eventually performs a crazy-awesome feat of valour I dare not spoil. All this while being utterly insane. Flora Hamburger, whose run for Congress was one of the redeeming features of Walk in Hell, is sadly given little to do here.

But let's talk about artillery sergeant Jake Featherston, a man who is coming to the fore as peace approaches. He's quite an unpleasant human being, a mixture of frustration, envy, and murderous hatred; but his scenes are among the highlights of the book. His futile attempts to stem the Yankee sweep into Virginia render him increasingly embittered, and he begins to write a book blaming the political class and the blacks of the Confederacy for defeat. All this is compelling enough: the trouble comes from the fact that it's perfectly obvious from our timeline where his path leads. This parallelism, which Turtledove is too fond of, is a real problem, breaking suspense in advance.

Breakthroughs is a high point for the series; but just like the peace forged between the American nations, it carries within it the seeds of future trouble. By the end of the book, similarities between the future trajectory of the Confederacy and certain European nations are already heavily implied. To me, that goes against the spirit of alternate history: the author should genuinely spin his timeline, not tether it to real history. But for now it's all good; let us bask in the glory of Turtledove's final Great War novel, and let tomorrow worry about itself.

P.S. As I'm moving and probably won't have access to further novels in the near future, I'm putting this series on hiatus for now, but will get back to it as soon as I can.

In this series:
Setting the scene
How Few Remain
The Great War: American Front
The Great War: Walk in Hell

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