A Review of Harry Turtledove's "The Great War: Breakthroughs"

Here's a review I did on my blog, covering Harry Turtledove's The Great War: Breakthroughs.

Spoilers abound, so proceed with caution.

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I finally finished The Great War series by the alternate history author Harry Turtledove. The series encompasses three books, chiefly American Front, Walk in Hell, and Breakthroughs. The first book in the series covers the opening moves of the First World War on American soil, showing a very familiar WWI complete with trench warfare, poison gas attacks, and airplane dogfights. In the prelude section to American Front, the book’s first few pages depict General Robert E. Lee’s masterful seizure of Philadelphia and a crestfallen Lincoln being made to recognize the southern Confederacy as an independent nation. The prelude ends with Lincoln prophetically declaring that one day the U.S. will have allies in Europe, The British ambassador Lord Lyons dismissing the president’s remark as unlikely. American Front posits a close military alliance between the United States and Germany.

For those not familiar with the Timeline-191 series of books, The epic eleven-book saga began with the standalone novel How Few Remain. The point-of-divergence is that Lee’s Special Order 191 isn’t found by Union troops but is instead discovered by a trailing Confederate private, who gives the cigar-wrapped order to the courier who was entrusted with its care. This in turn allows Lee’s 1862 invasion of Maryland to go ahead according to plan, the famed Confederate general leading his troops at the fictional Battle of Camp Hill in Pennsylvania where he succeeds in routing the Army of the Potomac. Lee then moves to temporarily occupy Philadelphia, which in turn results in France and Britain recognizing the Confederacy while forcing the defeated Union to do the same.

How Few Remain charts the path of the aptly-named Second Mexican War, the second war between the states, caused after the Confederacy buys and annexes the northernmost Mexican provinces of Chihuahua and Sonora from the indebted Empire of Mexico. The Union, led by the Republican President James G. Blaine, declares war in response to the annexations. The book at once introduces us to Custer, who plays a crucial role in The Great War series, as a brash young cavalry officer utilizing modern weaponry to his advantage. Abraham Lincoln, blamed for losing the American Civil War, makes a name for himself as a traveling Marxist intellectual who leads the left-wing of the disintegrating Republican Party over to the side of the nascent Socialist Labor Party of America. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, makes an appearance as a San Francisco journalist writing on the outbreak of the Second Mexican War. Frederick Douglass enters the fray as a spokesperson for abolitionism and racial equality, the Confederates keeping blacks in chains while the north gives African-Americans few rights. All of the characters, ranging from Stonewall Jackson to Alfred von Schlieffen, are historical figures. This serves to make the book doubly engaging, showcasing Harry Turtledove’s immense knowledge of 19th-century American history. Needless to say, for brevity’s sake, the Second Mexican War ends with a decisive victory for the Confederacy and its allies. This leaves the Union foaming at the mouth for revenge.

The Great War series continues the story into the early 20th-century, covering the years 1914-1917. The last book in the monumental Great War series, Breakthroughs, takes place during the third year of the First World War. The U.S., smarting from losing both the War of Secession and the Second Mexican War within a time span of fifty years, is eager to score a victory over the Confederate States. The first two books in the series, American Front and Walk In Hell, serve to show the reader the first hellish two-and-a-half years of the war. We see Confederate forces reach the banks of the Susquehanna very near to the U.S.’s unofficial capital at Philadelphia, simultaneously observing the sluggish First Army under Lieutenant General George Armstrong Custer inch its way down into the Confederate state of Kentucky. U.S. armies vie with the British for Canada, the Union under President Theodore Roosevelt hoping to claim the Canadian provinces for itself. The U.S. Pacific Fleet seizes Hawaii from the British, fighting Japan and Great Britain for mastery over the vast Pacific Ocean. Submarines and destroyers prowl the Atlantic, eager to sink one another.

By 1917, after several nightmarish years of stalemated trench warfare and few gains for both sides, the war starts to tilt in the Union’s favor. The Confederacy, short of manpower, succumbs to attrition. Having faced a communist rebellion spearheaded by oppressed blacks, the Confederacy finds itself cracking down on the Reds while trying to simultaneously fight the Yankees. Even after crushing the rebellion, the Confederacy is pushed out of Maryland back into Virginia while Custer fights his way deeper into Tennessee. It is during the push towards Nashville that Custer devises a plan to achieve a breakthrough, chiefly by utilizing barrels (tanks). First Army concentrates its barrels at the Confederacy’s line near Nashville, devastating the Confederate defenders with its armored fortresses. Soon, U.S. artillery is within firing distance of the city. Irving Morrell, a General Staff officer, personally leads the barrel charge. Morrell leads barrel after barrel through the Confederate line, peppering the enemy with incessant machine gun fire and cannon blasts. The attack successful, Morrell and Custer both gain immense prestige.

In Virginia, Sergeant Jake Featherston of the First Richmond Howitzers prepares to defend the approach to Richmond with his artillery battery. The Union has pushed deep into northern Virginia, casting aside the Confederates with ease. Sent further and further back towards Richmond and, as a cease-fire takes effect in Tennessee, Jake Featherston finds himself retreating along the road to Richmond and giving up the fight along with the rest of the vanquished Army of Northern Virginia. It is during the fierce fighting in Virginia that Featherston starts writing his book, Over Open Sights, which becomes this world’s equivalent to Hitler’s My Struggle. Already the book sets us up for the postwar world, in a Confederacy modeled after the Wiemar Republic facing great unrest, rampant inflation, and crushing poverty. Jake Featherston, besides being an excellent character, later gains infamy as head of the Freedom Party (an analogue to the Nazi Party) in the American Empire and Settling Accounts series of books. By far, Jake Featherston had to have been my favorite character in the The Great War series, with Custer following as a close second.

With the war lost, Confederate soldiers limp back to their hometowns after the Union victory, not knowing what to think. Reginald Bartlett, Jefferson Davis Pinkard, Hipolito Rodriguez, Jake Featherston, and numerous other Confederates head home utterly defeated and humiliated. Jefferson Davis Pinkard goes back to Alabama, where he had worked as a steelworker prior to the Great War’s outbreak in 1914, finding out that his wife had cheated on him while he was away. Reginald Bartlett returns home from captivity, having sat out the remainder of the war as a POW. Hipolito Rodriquez goes back to his small ranch in Sonora, experiencing great camaraderie during the war despite his race. Jake Featherston arrives into Richmond, bitter and angry at the world while not knowing what to do with his shattered life. Hence we are shown the Confederate characters’ point-of-view on the war’s end, which wreaks havoc on a Confederacy that no longer can be thought of as their own.

With the Confederacy out of the war, Canada’s outnumbered and outgunned defenders face the brunt of a massive U.S. assault which culminates in the fall of Quebec City, Winnipeg, and the rest of the dominion. Most of Canada is put under military occupation, while the province of Quebec is reorganized into a republic under U.S. control. Arthur McGregor, furious over the execution of his son by the U.S. Army, launches a series of bombings against the American occupiers. Lucien Galtier, a simple French Quebecois farmer, bears witness to collaborationist policies put forth by the local priest and the eventual creation of the Republic of Quebec. These two characters and their families provide us with the Canadian point-of-view, showing the naked oppression and colonialism put forth by the triumphant Union towards Canada. Canada remains under U.S. domination for the long haul, the occupation lasting well into the 1930′s and 40′s.

In the Union, throughout the war, the Socialist Party battles the Democrats for supremacy in national politics. Flora Hamburger, a young party militant, becomes a congresswoman and proves herself to be an able politician. She actively supports the Confederacy’s Red rebellion as a true Confederate revolution, while championing her party’s efforts to get a Socialist elected into the Philadelphia Powell House. In opposition to the war and the Socialist Party’s vote for war credits, she becomes a realist when she recognizes that the country was starved for a victory and that a repudiation of the war’s gains would lead to an open revolt. Always a Marxist, she struggles to reconcile the occupation of Canada and Kentucky with her radical aspirations. Overall, her character falls under third place as a favorite of mine. Bristling with fiery Marxist rhetoric throughout the TL-191 series, I deeply enjoyed scenes featuring her as a character in Breakthroughs.

That’s The Great War: Breakthroughs, all around an excellent book which leads the hooked reader deeper into the series. the First World War is depicted in all of its brutality as in real life, only it occurs on American soil in familiar locales. Continuing How Few Remain into the next century, the book’s narrative grows and expands as its own separate standalone story. I’d highly recommend reading through the entire TL-191 series, as each book builds upon the last and follows our ensemble of characters through both world wars. Well-researched and carefully-constructed, Harry Turtledove’s series is something of a masterpiece
 
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The McGregors. Never have I hated fictional characters so much.
I thought Arthur was sympathetic whereas the adult Mary was a moron

It's not bad, though I'd have preferred to see what would have happened if Turtledove had stuck to his guns and kept his original plan of a second CS victory
 
I admit I preferred the great war trilogy over the interwar and ww2 era trilogies.

Also Arthur McGregor I felt was somewhat sympathetic yet still possibly deluded about his sons guilt.

Mary was a straight up loon who deserved what she got though.

Also am I the only one who felt that Arthur's son actually was guilty of whatever the US shot him for?

Also part of me hopes that instead of a the typical "defeated US turns fascist" idea, it turned communist along with Germany and Russia just to shake things up.
 
I thought Arthur was sympathetic whereas the adult Mary was a moron
I liked Arthur as he was very sympathetic (mostly due to Custer being so downright reprehensible) with understandable motivations.

Mary could be very jarring and I never felt her story line was particularly necessary and thought to myself that a different Canadian POV would have been far more interesting.

It's not bad, though I'd have preferred to see what would have happened if Turtledove had stuck to his guns and kept his original plan of a second CS victory
That would have been...difficult to pull off I have to say. Even if he had the resulting world probably would have been pretty crapsacky but slightly nonsensical.
 
Also am I the only one who felt that Arthur's son actually was guilty of whatever the US shot him for?
Given how strongly successive US officers suspected him, and yet none made a move to arrest or execute him (well within their authority during war time), I don't think we can doubt that his son was guilty.
 
the McGregors seemed to me to be there mainly to show just how a normal family can get so fucked up when war sweeps over them. The eldest son executed mainly for being in the wrong place and having the wrong friends. The father goes nuts in revenge, kills some innocent people, some not-so-innocent people, and finally himself (accidentally), leaving his family without it's patriarch. His daughter carries on, killing innocent people, getting caught and executed, leaving a son and husband behind. The one I really felt sorry for was the mother, going into her old age and losing husband, son, and daughter on the way...
 
the McGregors seemed to me to be there mainly to show just how a normal family can get so fucked up when war sweeps over them. The eldest son executed mainly for being in the wrong place and having the wrong friends. The father goes nuts in revenge, kills some innocent people, some not-so-innocent people, and finally himself (accidentally), leaving his family without it's patriarch. His daughter carries on, killing innocent people, getting caught and executed, leaving a son and husband behind. The one I really felt sorry for was the mother, going into her old age and losing husband, son, and daughter on the way...
Mary killed Moss' wife and daughter just because she had married him (an American). I hated her with a fiery passion of fire, any sympathy she may have had went out the window when she became a Terrorist/Serial Killer. I also laughed when Custer blew up Arthur with his own bomb.

By contrast, I loved Monsieur Galtier, his death was literally the best out of all the other characters.
 
the McGregors seemed to me to be there mainly to show just how a normal family can get so fucked up when war sweeps over them. The eldest son executed mainly for being in the wrong place and having the wrong friends. The father goes nuts in revenge, kills some innocent people, some not-so-innocent people, and finally himself (accidentally), leaving his family without it's patriarch. His daughter carries on, killing innocent people, getting caught and executed, leaving a son and husband behind. The one I really felt sorry for was the mother, going into her old age and losing husband, son, and daughter on the way...
Yeah this was basically my take on the McGregors. They were the opposite of the Galtier family who adapted to the post-War world and moved on. The McGregors were those who were unable to accept the world they lived I and so lashed out against those that had wronged them (real or imagined.)
 
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