I have been anxiously awaiting the continuation of Harry Turtledove's alternate history series between the USA and the Confederacy since I finished The Victorious Opposition, mainly because that book was so bad and I wanted to see how Turtledove did once he got back on a war footing. I'm very happy to say that the improvement is so noticeable in Settling Accounts: Return Engagement that it shines. Yes, there are problems and annoyances, but for once they do not overshadow everything else. This is the best book in the series since World War I ended.
Jake Featherston (a Confederate version of Hitler) has launched a surprise attack against the United States. Unlike the Great War (World War I), this war does not stagnate into a series of trench assaults that accomplish nothing but the tearing apart of human flesh. This war is very mobile, and Confederate "barrels" (tanks) strike swiftly out of Kentucky and into Ohio. Will this assault bring the United States to its knees? Or will the Socialist president, Al Smith, be able to rally his people and the army to strike quickly at the Confederate capital and end the conflict before it goes any further? Meanwhile, The Freedom Party is doing its utmost to carry out its "population reduction" policy against the black people in the south. When a Confederate camp commander comes up with an inspired idea to accelerate the "final solution," time is running out for all black people in the Confederacy. War has come to the world, with the French, British, Russians and Confederates facing off against the United States and Germany, with unrest flaring up in Mormon Utah and Occupied Canada keeping the United States busy as well. How will this war come out? We've got two more books to find that out.
I'll get the main gripes out of the way first, because for the first time in this series, and for the second book in a row, I am going to praise Turtledove. As with all the rest of the books in this series, the main criticism is the prose and dialogue. Turtledove has an annoying habit of not only repeating character traits (more about that below), but also words and phrases used in narration. Three times in the first one hundred fifty pages, there are variations of somebody telling a dark joke or comment and everybody laughing because "laughing is better than screaming," or something to that effect. All three of them are in the same context, too. The city the characters inhabit is being bombed and they are down in the shelter. It's an understandable reaction, but it brings the narrative to a screeching halt every time he uses it. It occurs a few more times later in the book, though it's not as obvious. Also, the style of the writing is very plain and almost "down-home" simplistic most of the time. There are a lot of "I'd love to tell you you're wrong, but you're right" type comments made from one character to another. The dialogue is stilted and so is the narrative voice. It does make the book a quick read, however.
The second obvious problem is, as is always the case with Turtledove, character repetition. I think every scene containing Sam Carsten, a sailor for the United States, mentions how susceptible he is to sunburn. That's the most blatant thing, but each character has a trait or two that keeps coming up every time the narrative comes back to that person. We hear in quite a few Jefferson Pinkard (the camp commander mentioned above) scenes that every time the phone rings, it brings trouble from Richmond. Some have claimed that the constant introduction of characters is to help keep them straight, but that is even less of a problem in Return Engagement than it is in Turtledove's other books, as the character count is quite low in this one.
Thankfully, there are many pluses that outweigh these faults. He has cleared away most of the dead character weight. The annoying Nellie Jacobs is long gone, and her grandson isn't anywhere near as dull as she was. He doesn't even introduce that many new characters to take their places, resulting in a much tighter story with a few different viewpoints. Each character is there to give us a facet of the ongoing conflict. Chester Martin, the socialist unionist in Los Angeles, largely untouched by the war, shows us a veteran who is living in a part of the country away from all of the action, and his inner conflict about whether or not he should join up again. We see the higher echelons of the Confederate war machine (Featherston, spymaster Clarence Potter and Pinkard), plus some United States military commanders. We also see one US soldier and two sailors to round everything out. Plus, we see a little bit of occupied Canada as well, as well as two black characters giving us their point of view of the situation in the Confederacy.
Having jettisoned the boring people, we have a nice mix of older and newer characters. The most interesting has to be Sam Carsten (which makes it all the more annoying that he has the most repetition), whom we have followed since the first book of the Great War, six books ago. He has come a long way, working his way up from an enlisted soldier to the position he earns here. He's straightforward, always intelligent and willing to speak his mind, and he's humble as well. He's just a joy to read about (skin conditions not withstanding).
There is another reason why this book is so much better than the last three. It's extremely tight and focused. All of the action regards the war in one way or another. The characters' motivations are not scattered all over the map, allowing their boring sides to come out. Also, the entire book takes just over six months, unlike the long years that each of the last three books encompassed. Thus events in one character' story can actually affect some of the other characters. There isn't the isolation or the sense of events being glossed over that really turned me off before. Also, the atmosphere that Turtledove presents is almost palpable. He captures the horrors of living under a constant bombing very well (though, again, he does kill the mood a little bit by repeating it much too often).
Return Engagement shows that Turtledove is a much better writer when he involves military matters. While the prose is still annoying, he more than makes up for it with this outing. If you gave up on the series because of the lackluster American Empire segment, come back. While all is not forgiven, you can stop holding your nose for a while.