And the war slogs on. Harry Turtledove's Settling Accounts: The Grapple continues his alternate history of the Second World War in a world where the Confederate States still exist and are run by a Hitler-like madman intent on wiping out the black population. In my review of Drive to the East, I mentioned that I was getting a bit sick of the wrestling/boxing metaphors (how the Confederates needed a knockout punch, but since it wasn't delivered, they were in the wrestling match of their lives). So what does Turtledove do? He continues using the metaphor and puts it in the title! Despite some big problems with this book, I do have to say that it's probably the best book in the series so far. Yes, many of Turtledove's previous faults are there, but he's eliminated some others and actually strengthened other areas. It's not a wonderful book on its own, but compared to the rest, it's definitely up there.
The Confederate army is retreating in disarray from Stalingrad…I mean, Pittsburgh. The United States destroyed a whole army in that inferno and has now taken back the momentum. General Irving Morrell, the flashy "barrel" (tank) commander, wants to continue driving a wedge through the entire Confederacy - and it's becoming apparent that he can do it. The Confederates are on their heels, retreating so they don't get cut off and losing ground in huge chunks. Could the war be over soon? Meanwhile, the "final solution" for the black people in the Confederacy continues, though U.S. troops are coming close to the biggest extermination camp, Camp Determination, which may add impetus to the attempt by some people in the North (notably, Senator Flora Blackford) to get the word out about what is going on. Jake Featherston, dictator, madman, and president of the Confederacy, can't allow that to happen. But the more troops he sends to defend the camp, the less he has to defend the rest of the country. Things look incredibly bleak for the Confederacy. But the race to build a "uranium bomb" may hold the key to the end of the war.
Yes, the repetition in this book is monotonous. Turtledove insists on introducing characters again and again, having them say the same things (I don't know how many times we are told that the Confederates were supposed to win a one-punch victory, or that Featherston should have listened the first time to the scientist who brought the idea of the uranium bomb). The good thing is, he has found new things to repeat and stopped repeating a few others. There's barely a mention of zinc-oxide cream for Sam Carstens' light complexion, for example. In the last book, he compensated for not repeating this by repeating almost everything else; this time, it's not quite that bad. There is some justification for introducing characters multiple times, but there is none for repeating the same actions, phrases, or figures of speech over and over again.
Many of the individual character sequences start to sound the same after a while. This is most notable in the scenes with Dr. O'Doull. He's a combat surgeon, and every time we see him (except during one sequence where he is back home on leave), he's patching people up, commenting on patching people up, and making jokes or philosophical observations with his combat medic. None of these scenes advance the plot or the themes much. We get the fact that war is terrible, that a doctor's work is never done in a war zone. To a lesser extent, this is the case for most of the scenes in the book. Turtledove often gives the characters (except O'Doull) something new to do, but the scenes still have a basic sameness to them. It's like we're treading ground while waiting for the war to end. And it almost does, though not until the next book.
Perhaps my statement that this is the best book in the series isn't saying much. It does, however, have some strengths. As always in this series, I love the plotting, wondering what Turtledove's going to do with the war. His inclusion of car and "people" bombs brings a contemporary feel to the book, and the fear they imbue is palpable. I loved the scenes with the two black groups of rebels rampaging through Georgia. Turtledove introduces a few new characters to make up for a couple of deaths, though he then kills a couple more main characters off. You have no idea who will live or die in this series, and all of the deaths seem unforced by the narrative. They bring a touch of humanity to one of the characters, overwhelmed enough by what he is doing that he finally makes the final decision. I was sad to see this character go, but given what Turtledove was having him do, it seemed like the right choice.
One thing I would have liked to see more of was the Canadian rebellion. With Mary’s death in the last book, the Canadian viewpoint character is lost, and Turtledove never replaces her. We hear a few comments about the ongoing rebellion, a sequence mentioning the British trying to resupply them, but nothing more. Of course, the book is bloated enough as it is, so maybe it's a good thing he didn't add more.
The Grapple is a worthy addition to the “Settling Accounts” series, though you do have to work at it. If you can get through the prose and the dialogue, Turtledove has some interesting ideas. Consider this a qualified 4 stars.