Harry Turtledove just drives me crazy sometimes. He can come up with some really interesting plots and characters, but his writing can make me climb the walls sometimes. The plot itself has to be very interesting in order to grab me (which is why I only read his World War II series). Settling Accounts: Drive to the East is just like Return Engagement with one exception: my annoyance meter shot through the roof. Turtledove is known for his excessive repetition, but this book takes that repetition to a new level. Add to that the clunky prose and bad dialogue, and you get a book where you really want to know what happens but have to struggle to get there.
The Confederate attack on the USA in 1941 has split the country in two. All east-west movement that the USA wants to do has to be done via a route through occupied Canada. Yet the USA fights on, and Jake Featherston (the Hitler equivalent in this alternate history) is really annoyed that the United States hasn't thrown in the towel. The Confederacy is at a major manpower disadvantage, and a quick strike is needed. In 1942, the Confederates start another attack, one that may very well meet its doom in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the "final solution" for the Confederacy's black problem is going in full force, with whole Confederate cities emptied of their black population. Some members of the US Congress are trying to speak out about what the Confederates are doing, but it is falling mostly on deaf ears. That could change if the war ever reaches one of the camps. Meanwhile, the US is fighting on multiple fronts as well, with the Mormon uprising in Utah draining a lot of manpower, as well as the rebellion in occupied Canada. When the Mormons start using "People Bombs," the war might take on a very different shape. Will the tide of the war change for the better? And will there be any black people left in the Confederacy to celebrate if it does?
As I have said before about this series, the plotting is wonderful. There are a few too many obvious choices, like having another "Stalingrad" and Featherston acting too much like Hitler in all respects. Overall, though, I like what Turtledove has done with it. Some little things bother me, such as why the there don't appear to be any US troops west of Ohio other than in the extreme Southwest and fighting in Utah. The Confederates split the country in two, but in reading about what happens, they don't seem concerned at all about anything west of Ohio. The "drive to the east" from the title of the book takes up everything. The US is attacking in Virginia, but that has stalled. What about Illinois and Iowa? Overall, though, Turtledove gives us enough viewpoint characters to show most of what is going on in North America, and that's a good thing. There is one area that we don't get to see, however, and I think that's a shame. I won't reveal it, because it would reveal a character death, but I will say that this character's death happens at just the perfect time to rob us of getting a viewpoint of what's happening in a certain segment of the war. I'm sure Turtledove had his reasons, but it disappoints me.
Especially chilling is that we see the "Final Solution" from the point of view of two characters whom we have grown to know over a period of eight books, characters we may not love, but we do know. We've seen their prejudices, but having become familiar with them, it's hard to swallow them buying into all of this (not to mention that one of them actually is the idea-man behind it!). It's easier to look at monsters like that when we don't know anything about them, and I found those scenes uncomfortable, but in a good way. I like it when an author can do that to me.
I do really want to read the next book. Turtledove leaves a couple of characters on cliffhangers, kills off a few other characters, and gives us a new viewpoint character. We get the black experience with two men who are in the thick of all the fear that this atmosphere brings.
Yet this book was a struggle to get through. First, Turtledove's style, at least in this series, is a "down home country bumpkin" kind of style, even in the narration. The dialogue is the same way, and it was extremely irritating. Too many "I'd like to say you are wrong, but I can't, because you're right" type of statements. Most of the prose grates, but this is par for the course with Turtledove - at least for me.
Also par for the course is the amount of repetition, both in dialogue and narration. However, Turtledove must have hit the "overdrive" button on this one, as it is almost everywhere in this book. I can't count the number of times he mentions men looking around for a ditch to hide in when airplanes are above. I wish I could tell you how many times, when we're either looking at Featherston or Potter (the spymaster), that we hear the wrestling metaphor for the current situation. Ideally, the Confederate surprise attack would have knocked the US out of the war immediately, but since the US has refused to give in despite being divided, the Confederacy is now wrestling the US in a match it can't win without a knockout blow. Turtledove teases us by mentioning, yet again, Sam Carstens' need for zinc oxide to avoid sunburn, but then he only mentions it one more time in the book. I thought we were saved, but instead, he decides to repeat everything else in the book. At almost 600 pages now, this book could have been shorter and less padded.
It's a really good thing I care about most of the characters (now that Turtledove has killed off most of the annoying ones), or I wouldn't have been able to finish the book. As it is, Drive to the East is a slog, like walking through the mud of No-Man's Land in the Great War (which he also continually references). I'm in this story to the end; I really want to see how it turns out (and whether Atlanta or Charleston is going to get nuked). But my head may be horribly bruised by the time I'm done with it, from banging my head against the wall.