The first book in a new trilogy by the master of alternate history novels, Opening Atlantis is different from the standard Turtledove fare. The title is misleading; one expects a story of the fantasy and secrecy of the mythical Atlantis. Instead, this book looks at alternate history from the perspective of the settling of a new land.
Nonetheless, this is an interesting book with an interesting premise. Atlantis in this instance means a continent located somewhere unspecific in the Atlantic Ocean. Using a plotline of a tectonic plate shift which supposedly that severed the Eastern Seaboard from the rest of the U.S., the broken-off piece becomes an eighth continent midway between landfalls of U.S. and England, an undiscovered place until the time of Henry the VI. Bearing no similarity to the Atlantis of myth, the island is “discovered” by fishermen who decide to settle there. Eventually different nationalities put down roots, conquer the land, and ultimately bring their diversity of nationality and social status to Atlantis. However, the true charm of this novel lies in its clever depiction of modern humanity wreaking havoc on a pure and beautiful land. In this subtle social commentary, Turtledove bares some sharply intense views about colonialization, war (the novel begins during the Wars of the Roses) and ecology. There are strange animals here and unknown plants; a virtual plethora of riches abound in this new land.
The book is told in three sections, following the families of the original settlers. It is a little confusing at first, when no timeline is given, to understand the leaps in generations, but once you get into the pattern of the narrative, it is more enjoyable. The first generation, Edward Radcliffe, manages to bribe a Breton fisherman to divulge the location of his fishing spot off the coast of this unknown land. Tired of the war at home in England, and anxious to make the most of his options, Radcliffe convinces not only his family but most of his native village to run off to what he hopes will be the promised land. They settle on the East Coast of Atlantis in a city they name New Hastings and work hard to create a farming community supported by the fishing industry. The first years are hard as they battle outlandish animals, an odd landscape, and loneliness for their homeland. It doesn’t take long before the Bretons start their own settlement on Atlantis, and with each passing year, the island residents evolve as landsmen and fishermen. It is thought-provoking to see how the negative and harmful precedents of their mother country become part of their new life as well. Joined by the Dutch, Spanish, and other colonists, the land slowly becomes populated.
In the next section of the book, a community on Avalon Bay, located on the West Coast of the island, becomes the home to pirates and a dangerous place indeed. Another Radcliffe, one who has dropped the “e” from his family name, decides to battle the pirates and put them out of business for good. One faction of the pirates is run by another Radcliffe descendant (this has kept the “e”, perhaps for the reader’s sake, so the story can be followed...) determined to exchange blows with all comers, but the combined forces of the English and Dutch are overwhelming.
The final portion of the book tracks back to the descendent of the Breton fisherfolk who originally discovered the new island. This section of the novel is about the slave trade of both the island natives and the black populations being transported for slavery. Throughout it all, the similarities to the New World’s settlement, and the continual mistakes of pioneers the world over, are dominant in the telling. Bands of men rove the woods, hunting for escaped slaves with dogs and wily trackers. Each settlement retains its national flavor - the French Bretons in the town of Stuart, the Dutch, Spanish and English in New Hastings - and they all want power, glory and wealth. Even though they are willing to band together against the common enemy - i.e. pirates, or escaped slaves - each nationality still holds its loyalty to their respective fatherland, even if they have never actually set foot there.
Because of the mistaken presumption by most readers that this novel has more to do with the mythical Atlantis than an island that just happens to be named Atlantis, it is a bit hard to get into the story at the beginning. Nevertheless, once the reader gets into the swing of things and understands that this is a book not only of alternate history but also of social commentary, it becomes easier to understand and appreciate the story’s unfolding. Trying to guess what the animals are supposed to represent (dodos, perhaps?) and reading with fascination as the women and children begin to take their places in society and in the farming segment of the place makes the book an interesting read, if not up to Turtledove’s usual standards.
There is no real sense as to how the second and third books in the trilogy will evolve. We don’t know if the generation-skipping of the first book will continue, or whether a completely new cast will people the pages. The reader is challenged to disregard their previous assumptions and beliefs as they read, a recurring trait in Turtledove’s writings. However, it is hard to see the “alternate history” aspect of the tale, since we can all too well see the traits of conquerors and pioneers the world over. A fine read, if not exactly what was expected.