21 December 2007

A fitting (and welcome) conclusion to a long story

In at the Death (Settling Accounts, book 4)
Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, 2007

I've said it before and I'll say it again--if you've read the rest of the series, then what I have to say probably won't influence you one way or another. As well, it is likely that anything I reveal here won't be a real spoiler. It should come as little surprise that Turtledove's wrap-up involves the deployment of this world's first atomic weapons (a total of nine times worldwide!), the trials and hangings of those responsible for Confederate atrocities, the assassination of CSA President Jake Featherston, the utter collapse of the Confederate States of America, and the permanent occupation/reconquest of these territories by the USA.

What did surprise me is that Turtledove's warring nations unveil their atomic weapons less than halfway into the book. I was expecting that something so paradigm shifting as the birth of the nuclear age would come later in the novel and be used for greater dramatic effect. As it is Turtledove's treatment is much more subtle; after the absolute obliteration of Petrograd ("One bomb. Off the map. G-O-N-E. Gone. No more Petrograd. Gone."), the use of uranium and plutonium/jovium bombs by the different warring nations begin to influence how the POV characters see the world and their places in it. The atomic age begins with a bang and a whimper, as it were. Similarly the assassination of Featherston takes place with little fanfare, as if to suggest that his fall from power was as total as his rise. The novel itself spends much of its second half dealing with the aftermath of the war and the consequences for those in both nations occupying the heart of North America. Although its conclusion leaves the door open for further sequels, I hope that Turtledove is through with this series---frankly, I don't think I can handle further installments. Instead, I hope that the ambiguities and uncertainties the reader faces at the end of this novel are simply indicative of how history is itself constantly in the making, never thoroughly resolved.

Turtledove (or the writing team by that name, if you subscribe to certain authorial conspiracy theories) also seems to have taken fan criticisms to heart with this concluding installment. He avoids overindulging in threadbare comments on the quality of US tobacco and how readily Sam Carsten's skin burns in even the slightest sunshine, for example. This, like its predecessor The Grapple, had better pacing and was far more engaging than many which came before it, making for a fitting conclusion to an interesting, if overlong, vision of an alternate North America.

(This review was originally written on September 21, 2007.)

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