The echoes of war loom over a divided North American continent in Harry Turtledove's American Empire: The Victorious Opposition, the third book in the middle trilogy of books. Starting with The Great War saga, Turtledove has told a tale of alternate history, with the Confederacy having won the Civil War and still being around in the early 1900s. The American Empire trilogy has told the story of the inter-war years, and Turtledove's ideas are fascinating. Unfortunately, the writing doesn't keep up with it.
The South shall rise again! While he doesn't say it in so many words, Jake Featherston, a bitter sergeant who has harnessed his rage to become the most powerful man in the Confederacy, is determined to make the Confederate States of America the power that it was before World War I. Blaming their loss on a "stab in the back" by the black people in the country during the war and determined to make them pay for it, Featherston's "Freedom Party" is making life very difficult for people of color in the country. Many are being shipped off to camps, while others just keep their heads down and try not to be noticed. Some, like Scipio, are trying to keep their heads down due to past associations with the black "Reds" who were part of the uprising and fearful that they'll be recognized by some of their former white masters.
Meanwhile, the Depression lingers on in the United States, with people desperately searching for work. The Democrats have been unable to staunch the tide of joblessness, so the people elect another socialist president to try and fix things. This has unfortunate consequences on the foreign relations front, as Featherston steamrolls over his counterpart from the States. Some people see the threat to the South, but others hide their heads in the sand, saying that if they give Featherston what he wants, he'll stop asking for any more.
Others just try and get on with their lives. Unrest continues in occupied Canada as some bristle under U.S. rule. Life continues as normal in the Republic of Quebec, though the events going on to the south are liable to draw them into war as well. Once they realize what is going on, can the United States prepare in time to stop the Confederate onslaught? Or will Jake get exactly what he wants: a war that will plunge the entire world into turmoil?
Harry Turtledove really confuses me sometimes. I love the concept of this series and I love what he's doing with it. The idea of a Confederacy taking part in World War I and the rise of a Hitler-like figure in the downtrodden South that sparks World War II is fascinating. However, the way he writes annoys me. His constant repetition (he uses the same metaphors over and over) and his need to introduce his characters every time we see them in the book are grating. We know that Abner Dowling served under Custer during the First World War and that Dowling didn't like him. Even if we hadn't read the previous books, we got that the first time Turtledove introduces Dowling in this book. We don't need to get it again the next time, and the time after that. It's like Turtledove thinks that his readers don't have the attention span to keep all of his characters straight. While that may be a valid point (previous books have had a lot of viewpoint characters), Turtledove has actually toned that down in this one, having only a few characters act as main ones. Others are introduced as some of the previous ones die off, keeping the cast to a manageable level.
This brings up another point. Turtledove is not afraid to kill off some of his characters, so it's nice that you don't quite know who's going to survive and who's going to live. However, some of the characters' fates are so obvious that it feels boring just waiting for the inevitable end to the storyline. Some of these characters we have been following for six books now, so it seems a shame that their deaths are so telegraphed. Even when they weren't telegraphed, they seem perfunctory. Two of the characters die off with no real ending to their ongoing story, which bristles. We've been waiting six books for the payoff to their story, expecting some sort of comeuppance or resolution, but nothing happens. The character dies and that's it. End of story. I was not amused. Turtledove also spends time developing his next set of characters who will carry the next series, with the sons and daughters of our well-known characters finally getting their time on stage so we can get to know them.
Another fault with the book is one I had with the Blood and Iron as well. Too much of the history is a pale imitation of what really occurred in history. Some of it is unavoidable. Jake Featherston is Hitler; the blacks in the Confederacy are the Jews from our real history (brought to life in a very chilling scene late in the book). The United States is Britain as it led up to the war (though at least Turtledove avoids having the president make a speech about "peace in our time"). However, Turtledove doesn't make it different enough to be as interesting. Kentucky, a state that the US has controlled since the war, is the Rhineland, even down to the Confederacy moving in troops when they promised to keep it demilitarized for twenty-five years. While all the events in the book inevitably led to the conclusion we all know about (World War II), the events themselves should have been at least slightly different. That's what made The Center Cannot Hold more interesting. Different events occurred, surprising the reader even as we knew where it would ultimately lead.
With all of this wrong with the book, how are the characters? Just like other Turtledove books, they are hit or miss. Some of them are interesting (Chester Martin and his attempt to unionize the construction industry in California really has me wondering where Turtledove is going with this one, which is a good thing), while others are bland and boring (Nellie Jacobs has to be one of the most worthless characters I've ever read about). Others are intriguing just because of who they represent in real history (Featherston, Clarence Potter). Overall, Turtledove does a passable job.
One good thing about the book, however, is the mood. As the book reaches its conclusion and war looms on the horizon, there's a palpable sense of fear and resignation that, because of Featherston, war is unavoidable. The United States has finally drawn a line that he can't cross, and when he does (just as in real life) the inevitable conflagration occurs, leading us into the next series. The tension is very well done, making the ending much better than the rest of the book.
The Victorious Opposition is a triumph of concept over prose, and I think that's why I can't read any other series by Turtledove. The concept of this entire series has kept me hooked for six books, when other, better-written books have turned me off and forced me to give them up. If you are a fan of alternate history and can get past the wretched prose and obvious characters, then give this book a try. If you are not in that select group of people, then give it a miss.