Settling Accounts: In at the Death

You just have to take my word that progress is being made on actually producing new stuff.

For now, I’ll cap off Harry Turtledove’s Great War series with a retro review from 2011.

I have some more alternate history reviews I’ll be posting eventually but the next one won’t necessarily be of a Turtledove title.

Review: Settling Accounts: In at the Death, Harry Turtledove, 2007.in-at-the-death

Yes, this is the end. After eleven volumes, no more books are planned for this series, a look at how American history deviated from ours after a Confederate victory at the Battle of Antietam and how a diminished United States of America became ensnared in European wars earlier than in our time.

This book is the best in the series since the first, How Few Remain. Turtledove has had, from the very beginning of his career in alternate history, a sometimes annoying tendency to simply replay, in the context of an alternate history, events from our timeline. While there are plenty of WWII analogs throughout this series, the major ones being Jake Featherston equals Hitler, Pittsburgh equals Stalingrad, and death camps for blacks equals Jewish Holocaust, the story deviates from expectations in several ways which I will not spoil.

The lives of several characters are satisfyingly — or, at least, conclusively — resolved. Other characters, as you would expect taking any slice of historical time, are left with unpleasant memories or craving their old wartime lives. Through sheer accumulation of detail and revolving sections where the world is seen through the eyes of a viewpoint character, we’ve built up quite a lot of empathy for these characters. We understand them if not always approve of them. Two scenes stand out in that regard: Pinkard encounters an old black co-worker of his sent to the death camp that Pinkard directed, and a character we are fond of participates in a spur of the moment atrocity against civilians in the occupied Confederacy.

Given the title and trajectory of the series, it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that a great deal of the book is about what to do with the conquered Confederate States of America. Turtledove has explored this territory before with another story called “Must and Shall”, but this book is even darker than that work. It is not at all clear that the former CSA will ever be integrated into the United States. And, while there is a logic to the casual slaughter of surrendered soldiers, the taking of civilian hostages and their occasional execution, that makes it no less jarring to see American troops in a very WWII context acting that way. And, with the question of “crimes against humanity, Turtledove reminds us not only of the necessity of rendering punishment but the hypocrisy of doing it in the framework of ex post facto law.

Towards the end of the novel, there is a nice scene where a character contemplates the contingency of history, what would have happened if Jake Featherston had simply taken another Richmond street and never fatefully encountered the Freedom Party that his anger, drive, and intelligence almost made the equal of America.

It is a tribute to Turtledove’s skill that, while I have complained about other books in this series, I will miss not visiting the future of this world and seeing how America fares in its quest to reunite its broken parts and find a secure place in the new international order.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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