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Review: Turtledove ingeniously recreates World War II in 'Darkness'
(CNN) -- Infantry engagements, sea battles, air-to-air combat -- all the staples of a classic war novel play a part in "Darkness Descending." But the foot soldiers don't carry M-16s; they're armed with what seem to be magic wands. And the leviathans of the deep that prey on shipping aren't nuclear submarines -- they're more like whales. And those aren't fighter jets flashing overhead. They're dragons.
Welcome to war in the world of Harry Turtledove.
The author of "Guns of the South" and other alternate histories has re-imagined the military history of World War II to create a sweeping saga of global conflict on a very different kind of world. The theater of operations is a continent called Derlavai. Its most powerful nations, Unkerlant and Algarve, are locked in a protracted battle for domination. The smaller countries are divided in their allegiances, and some of them have been conquered by one side or the other. The outcome of the war is far from certain. The key to victory may lie in the hands of sorcerers.
"Darkness Descending" is the second book in Turtledove's latest series. Readers joining the story at this point have some catching up to do. To the author's credit, he takes his time developing his plot and characters, and as the book progresses he fills in enough of the "back story" to bring the reader up to speed.
The deliberate pace helps in another way. There are dozens of characters to keep straight. The list of them at the front of the book runs five full pages. There are seventeen "viewpoint" characters Turtledove uses to reveal the various facets of his complex story.
The complexity of the narrative might be off-putting in someone else's hands. Turtledove uses his rich imagination and deep understanding of the characters to draw the reader into his story. By the time the central event of the book occurs, we're hooked.
Escalating the conflict
The central event is the decision by commanders on both sides to escalate the conflict through genocide. There are clear echoes of the Holocaust. The Algarvians target a minority population -- the Kaunians -- for extermination. The Unkerlanters slaughter their own peasants. But there is more than sheer evil at work here. Both sides are using mass murder to power the sorcery they need to win the war.
The killings are kept secret, but rumors fly on both sides. Vanai, a young Kaunian woman in the occupied kingdom of Forthweg, watches with deep foreboding as trains packed with "laborers" head westward. "No one came back from the west," Turtledove writes. "That, to Vanai, was the central fact of life ... No one came back. No one sent money from the wages the Algarvians had promised to pay. No one sent so much as a scrawled note. That continuing, echoing silence made the worst rumors easier and easier to believe as day followed day."
The Holocaust is just one of the many historical elements Turtledove has used as building blocks for his story. But he isn't merely retelling World War II with different place names. He is re-inventing the history of the time to advance his own distinctive narrative. He uses a broad canvas and a wealth of detail to bring his characters to life and weave the threads off the story together. In the process, he allows us to consider the familiar events of the war in Europe in a new and wholly original way.
History buffs can enjoy "Darkness Descending" for the ingenious way it utilizes historical events. Science fiction and fantasy fans will be intrigued by the way Turtledove blends those genres to produce a world where "technology is indistinguishable from magic."
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