Wow! The new Harry Turtledove novel! Let me get out my checklist:
(Reads book, swishes it around in mouth before nodding)
- Alternate history: check (well, sort of)
- Fascinating concept: check
- Much repetitive introducing of characters we already know: check
- Horrendously written bedroom scene: che…well, actually, no.
Hmmm…quite pleasant, actually. I won't be sending this one back to the wine cellar, but it's not quite a Merlot.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies allows Turtledove to take a break from his Great War and American Empire series and do a self-contained novel set in the normally cliched world where the Germans won World War II and are dominating everything. I say "normally cliched" because Turtledove actually does a good job of making it seem fresh and interesting.
It is the early twenty-first century. The Germans and the Japanese won the war, cities in the USA were nuked in a second conflict after the European one ended, and the United States agreed to be subjugated, paying tribute money every year to Berlin. Everybody figures that the next war will be against Japan for final control of the world, but for now an uneasy peace settles between the two empires.
Jews have been eliminated from most of Europe, but like the cockroaches the Germans in this novel think they are, hidden infestations are everywhere, including right under there noses. This provides the main thrust of the story, as we are told of a society of hidden Jews who are working among everyday Germans in Berlin and elsewhere. The main character, Heinrich Gimpel, works for the Wehrmacht (the German army) as the man in charge of keeping tabs on the American money that gets sent to Berlin every year. At the beginning of the book, the ritualistic revelation of the family Jewish secrets to 10-year-old Alicia Gimpel occurs. When the parents think they are ready (usually around that age), their children's ancestry is revealed and they are absorbed into the conspiracy of silence. The children have to adjust to the raging anti-Semitism around them as well as changing their own feelings, because they have been indoctrinated with all of the anti-Jewish hate and must learn that they are the people who most other Germans consider the devil.
Turtledove does an excellent job of telling the intensely personal story of this family along with the larger story of massive political change in Germany. Momentous events around the world sit beside the normal affairs and personal problems that we all have, not to mention the secrets that the Gimpels and their friends are hiding. While sometimes kept to the background of the story, the specter of their ancestry is always hanging over them, even as events move to perhaps eventually allow them to admit in public what they've hidden for generations. Even when Turtledove seems to forget that aspect of the story as he tells of the politics (especially toward the end of the book), something often comes to the forefront as a harsh reminder of just what's at stake. Heinrich is caught up in the political changes but has to guard himself, lest he reveal their secrets in a rushed reaction to the world changing around him. He knows that with one misstep, extermination awaits him and his family.
The economy of viewpoint characters Turtledove uses is impressive. He uses the three Gimpels who are aware of the secret (two younger children don't know, which provides a lot of the conflict for Alicia, as she can't tell them but has to put up with, in silence, the anti-Semitic statements made by them) along with three other Jews who are in their circle of friends. With these characters, he is able to tell their story -- a story of political change, as well as the deeply personal story of a troubled marriage and the effects it has on the Gimpels as Heinrich becomes the object of affection for a frustrated wife. Usually Turtledove has so many characters that it's hard to keep them straight. I have always felt that this is probably why Turtledove insists on introducing them constantly almost every time they appear in the book. However, that reasoning must be faulty, because there are only six of them and he still insists on doing that; it becomes very aggravating.
One thing I do find amazing is that Turtledove manages to avoid most of the pitfalls his books usually fall into. Sure, there is the introduction of characters mentioned above, but at least Turtledove makes every one of them interesting. It's almost heartbreaking to watch Alicia struggle with the new knowledge she has gained, having to silently accept all of the statements made against her newfound people by her younger sisters as well as everybody in school. She finds it incredibly hard to absorb this new information and not reveal it to others through actions or, worse, inaction (such as not joining a game of Jewish monster and German princess). Your nerves actually clench a little bit when the fighting between Heinrich's friend Willi and his wife Elena almost results in an affair that could jeopardize not only Heinrich's marriage but also accidentally reveal their secret. There are no useless characters in this one, and even the minor characters attract the reader's interest just enough to not be annoying. Turtledove also avoids the gratuitous, badly-written love scene. He effectively fades to black a few times, and even the one that he does include doesn't concentrate on the details. I applaud him for this, as it really has been a weakness of his in others of his books.
His prose is still wooden enough to give a woodpecker a woody, but it's not too bad this time around, probably because he's avoided most of his other problems. The climax of the book, while pulse-pounding as change sweeps through Germany, is so obviously a copy of the fall of another Evil Empire that it becomes very predictable. It's to Turtledove's credit that he makes the book interesting despite this, though by this time you have enough invested in the characters that you want to keep reading despite knowing what's going to happen. Inertia, perhaps?
In the Presence of Mine Enemies is an excellent book of alternate history, and probably the best book I've read by Turtledove. Give it a shot, even if you've found his Great War and American Empire series to be a waste of time. This one isn't.