And the war is over! Hallelujah! Yes, Harry Turtledoveís seemingly never-ending saga of an alternate history where the Confederacy won the Civil War and World Wars I and II were fought between the two countries (as well as the different alliances in Europe) has finally ended. In at the Death has a finality to it which makes it feel like itís the last book. Yes, he could do a Cold War twist with the United States and Germany, but that would miss the point of this entire series. The good thing about this book is that Turtledove doesnít just end the war and then stop. He deals with the ramifications of the outcome. Unfortunately, his prose continues to get in the way, and I could not wait for this book to end.
The Confederacy is on the ropes. Jake Featherston, the Hitler-substitute ruler of the Confederacy, is on the run as Richmond falls to U.S. forces. The extermination camps where Featherstonís people were systematically murdering millions of blacks have been overrun, and the U.S. army is running roughshod over the demoralized Confederate army. The war will be ending soon, but the advent of ďuranium bombsĒ may make the victory more costly than it should have been. Once the Confederacy is defeated (and did you really think Turtledove would allow the equivalent of Nazi Germany to actually win?), the U.S. has to decide what to do. The Confederates were defeated once before, and they came back. Do they stomp on the Confederate people until there are none left, or do they remain an occupying force for years to come?
Turtledove spends a lot of time dealing with the aftermath of the war during In at the Death, with the war ending barely halfway through the book. I found that fascinating, because I was always wondering how he would end the entire series. The U.S. and Confederacy hate each other with such a passion that it doesnít seem like thereís any way they can coexist once the violence has ended. Turtledove does have some interesting thoughts on that issue, and it is a treat to see them enacted.
However, the trick is once again Turtledoveís prose. For me, Turtledoveís plots are always what makes or breaks one of his books; I love his ideas, but I hate his writing. His ideas get me through the books that Iím interested in, and thatís even more the case with this one. He plods along with the warís aftermath, showcasing what the characters whom weíve followed for a while (and some who were only introduced in the last book) are doing, whether theyíll stay in the Army or go home, giving us a feel for how this war has changed them. He tells this using his usual wooden prose, and since thereís no longer any action (with a couple of exceptions), heís unable to make these scenes interesting.
Itís a symptom of this type of epic series that thereís nowhere that you can just definitively end it. It just has to come to a stop naturally, and I donít fault Turtledove for the way he ended the book. However, has a bloated feel (itís over 600 pages). The enormity of Turtledoveís plot seems to require that large a book, so itís definitely the actual content of those pages that makes it feel bloated. Editing the typical Turtledove repetition could probably have trimmed some of these pages, but making the scenes more relevant and interesting would have helped as well.
Turtledove does avoid a few of his normal faults. Once again, while there is plenty of annoying repetition in the book, he avoids the most irritating one (Sam Carstensí pale complexion and his near-constant sunburn). Also, he doesnít have any sex scenes in the book, or at least no explicit ones. Since I cringed every time I read one of them in previous books, I had to cheer at that.
The inventiveness of the plot is what makes this book thoroughly readable, if you like this sort of thing. With a couple of exceptions (the U.S. has another parallel with real-world Britain regarding the warís aftermath and its politics, for example), Turtledove manages to make the situation unique. The series-wide similarities between the real world and this one are always going to be there (Featherston is Hitler, black people in the Confederacy are the Jews, etc.), he doesnít have the outcome mirror exactly the real world. While the reader has a general idea of how things will turn out, the details come as a surprise. Not only that, but we hear much more about the surrounding world as news bulletins from Europe are frequently mentioned. The situation on the other side of the world would probably make an interesting series in itself, and Turtledove goes off on a huge tangent from what really happened in World War II. Two atomic bombs in the real world? Small potatoes in Turtledoveís.
This plotting is what earns In at the Death every star Iím giving it, and itís the reason Iím recommending it. If you love alternate history, and if youíre not tired of riffs on World War II, this series is an enjoyable read. You do have to work to get past Turtledoveís writing, but it was worth it for me. If Turtledove decides to do the Cold War series, Iím definitely there. I may be holding my nose, but it will be worth it.