Turtledove's "Through Darkest Europe" is breezy read, but not a good one

Discussion in 'Alternate History Books and Media' started by Greg Grant, Nov 4, 2018.

  1. Greg Grant Well-Known Member

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    Author: Harry Turtledove
    Title: "Through Darkest Europe"
    Series: None, standalone (for now, at least)
    Publication: September, 2018
    Publisher's Synopsis: "From the modern master of alternate history and New York Times bestselling author Harry Turtledove, Through Darkest Europe envisions a world dominated by a prosperous and democratic Middle East--and under threat from the world's worst trouble spot. Senior investigator Khalid al-Zarzisi is a modern man, a product of the unsurpassed educational systems of North Africa and the Middle East. Liberal, tolerant, and above all rich, the countries and cultures of North Africa and the Middle East have dominated the globe for centuries, from the Far East to the young nations of the Sunset Lands. But one region has festered for decades: Europe, whose despots and monarchs can barely contain the simmering anger of their people. From Ireland to Scandinavia, Italy to Spain, European fundemantalists have carried out assassinations, hijackings, and bombings on their own soil and elsewhere. Extremist fundamentalist leaders have begun calling for a "crusade," an obscure term from the mists of European history. Now Khalid has been sent to Rome, ground zero of backwater discontent. He and his partner Dawud have been tasked with figuring out how to protect the tinpot Grand Duke, the impoverished Pope, and the overall status quo, before European instability starts overflowing into the First World."

    POD (found on pg. 18, so not using spoiler tags): St. Thomas Aquinas decides Aristotle and Christ cannot be reconciled and Christian Europe turns inward and awkward, while a century before him, al-Ghazali thinks Islam and Aristotle can get along just fine and the Middle East and North Africa prosper and progress.

    Setting: 20th century Italy

    TL;DR summary of the review: An interesting premise that quickly devolves into a meandering mess.

    Full Review: I picked up the book because once I read the synopsis I thought it'd be... interesting, if nothing else. I was wrong. It is not. Setting aside plausibility (for now), I want to focus on the main issue I had with the tale: it's boring and the heroes are passive and do not move the plot along until almost the end of the story. You would think a world where, for lack of a better term, Middle East and North Africa swapped with Europe would be a fertile ground for a good tale. Controversial perhaps. Perhaps even cringe inducting. Or at the very least odd. Instead we get two detectives from Tunis who show up in Rome, look about and comment about what is going on around them with dad-jokes and heavy social commentary to make us all realize we are all not that different from one another and "there for but the grace of..." The Disney message notwithstanding (and it is a good message, and I like it), once you get past the gee-whiz factor of the premise, you wait for the plot to kick in and it does, though no thanks to the two people who are supposed to be the protagonists. They just wander about and make more dad-jokes, do some '80s-movies cop-partners banter and ponder the meaning of it all. The first 100 pages breeze-by, but then you realize you are nearly a third of the way done with the book and our hero did not do anything except stand about and ponder humanity, geek out over Ancient Roman ruins and develop romantic feelings for a lovely lady.

    I would call the plot paint-by-the-numbers, but it's missing some colors and numbers. The investigation by the two detectives with wide ranging mandate from a foreign power in a backwater goes absolutely nowhere until the last twenty pages where the bad guys make a mistake a Lifetime TV movie villain with armpit sweat stained flannel shirt would make and the hero puts four and zero together to get four. The heroes also make plot based decisions making no otherwise sense, such as suddenly deciding to visit Florence, Turin and Milan just so things can happen to them there and on the way back. I am avoiding spoilers here, but will just say do not bother figuring out who are the hidden bad guys because it is not worth it. The denouement for most part happens off page and is the cinematic equivalent of a still shot of an Amity beach, with Hooper and Brody swimming to the shore and telling the locals they killed the shark, but Quint didn't make it and giving each other a high five.

    Plausibility is not a show-stopper for me, and even the most well crafted AH story requires some form of suspension of disbelief. And so I had no trouble with swapped North Africa and Italy, then a hard-nosed Roman religious fanatic show up and his name is Pacelli. Fine. It's a wink. Moving on. Puking college students who can't hold their liquor show up on the streets of Rome and they are from the Sunset Land republic of Arkansistan. Okay. Then Oregonis tourists from Seattle make a pit-stop. Whatever. Then Pavorotti shows up and the author tells us he has a fine tenor. Then we hear about a religious fanatic in Munich named Adolphus. And then striking propaganda poster appear, and they are drawn by a German religious fanatic artist named Mjolnir. Sigh. It's not quite Nixon selling used steam-cars, but it's there. Trouble is, they remind me how "The Two Georges" is a far superior work to "Through Darkest Europe." In there, we got more special guest-appearances, but at least they were fun. Here they are just dreary.

    The oddest thing about the tale, besides it not going anywhere and being boring, is how it is for the most part PG, but then someone drops a curse word or twelve and we get a PG-13 ("12" for the UK readers) sex scene. It feels oddly out of place given the rest of the soft-tone of the novel, despite the subject matter. You would think a world with religious violence, hatred, discrimination, assassinations, bombings and war would not feel or read soft, but it does and that too may be part of the problem. It is not adult. It feels childish. If I didn't know better, then I'd say it's a lesser YA novel.

    In conclusion: the premise seems neat, but nothing happens. And that's disappointing.
     
  2. Sovereign12 Well-Known Member

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    Right now? Uhh. Crap! I think I'm lost.
    Thanks for the review.
    I was going to pick this up during the weekend, but went with another choice which I am enjoying.

    While I was intrigued by the idea of this story, I just couldn't conceptualize a Darkest Europe working out to be an equivalent of Darkest Africa. For me part of it was the fact that Europe, compared to Asia or Africa is much smaller and travel times, for goods and ideas, can travel at a faster pace. So Europe staying in the dark as it were just didn't seem plausible. Another thing that turned me off was the extreme parallelism with OTL (eg. Christian suicide bombers). I generally enjoy Turtledoves works, even the ones that others on this site pan, but after reading your review I'm glad I didn't pick this one up.
     
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  3. Tiro Well-Known Member

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    This definitely sounds like one of those novels that ought to inspire quite a bit of Fan Fiction/Fan Fixes - 'tis a very strong concept that would appear to have been let down in the execution.:)
     
  4. Polish Eagle AntiFa Supersoldier

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    You can apply this comment to almost everything Turtledove’s written in the last decade.

    I had wondered when this book was finally going to get released. I might give it a try just to see what ideas for a fix-fic it inspires.
     
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  5. CapitalistHippie Peace, love, and free markets.

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    The premise reminds me of The Mirage (albeit more realistic).
     
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  6. Greg Grant Well-Known Member

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    So I initially dismissed "Mirage" as something I would not find interesting, but on the basis of your post and the fact that Turtledove seemed to reacting to something or other in his lazy writing of "Darkness," I went out and gave it a read. I'm two thirds of the way through and wow. I want to see how it all ends and how the writers wraps things up, but with the exception of two-three glaring issues, this may be one of the top ten greatest ASBs ever written. Now, as I said, I'm not yet at the ending and there are still many things that can screw it up. And the ASB is thicker than a frozen Snickers bar, but you have compelling characters, great pacing and well crafted writing. I'm very intrigued, in spite of the ASB, or maybe because of it, because as I said, "Mirage" embraces ASB in a big way, while trying to ground it in some sort of an explanation.
     
  7. TheScottishMongol Miss Demizona 2018

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    I thumbed through the first chapter at the bookstore and caught some interesting throwaway lines - the Seljuks are a constitutional monarchy and put a man on the Moon, all the cars are made in the Sultanate of Delhi which suggest unsurprisingly that they're an industrial powerhouse (and one could extrapolate that the Industrial Revolution happened in India ITTL)...

    Anyway, perhaps this would be good fodder for a map cover, but ultimately I put the book back on the shelf and decided it wasn't worth combing through it just for references I could use.

    Also, the superior punny name for a Muslim colony in the New World is Al-Abamas.
     
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  8. Greg Grant Well-Known Member

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    So I finished "Mirage" and I, uh, really, really want to talk about it, but not sure where, as I saw there were two older threads on it, but they are more than a year old, and they are for the most part not touching the stuff I wanna talk. Quick recap and restate: "Mirage," when it's good, it's probably one of the best ASB ever written, or at least one of the best ASBs I've ever read. But make no mistake about it, it is pure ASB. When it gets expository and more than a little goofy, it strains a bit, but still, the overall effect is stunning. If you break down the plot and characters, you'd be surprised how more-or-less-cliched some of them are, but given the premise and how it all fits - it's impressive. A mature author at work with a mature subject matter. As I previously said, without getting into spoilers, there are three things in it that bother me (plot wise, and pacing, and the resolution is a bit TV-show-season-finale), but man, I'd rather we have ten "Mirage" like AH works out there by authors who actually try than a hundred "Darkest Europe" hack-jobs.

    I might start a separate thread for it, but it is not possible to discuss how the book works without going into spoilers and part of the fun of the book are the spoilers.
     
  9. B_Munro Member

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    The fact that North America, at least, seems to be full of Muslim native American states makes no sense: aside from the fact that no scientific revolution does nothing to prevent 16th century Europeans from being just as dangerous to Amerindians, it's not like Muslims are going to treat a bunch of backwards and frequently hostile pagans with kid gloves. At the very least, they're going to go all jihad on the Aztec's asses.

    I'll note that the terrorists seem more powerful, efficient, and unified than any Muslim terrorists OTL. I dunno if this is a deliberate "See? Under the same circumstances, Christians would be even worse!" statement, or whether it's Turtledove pandering to OTLs inflated image of terrorist power.
     
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  10. B_Munro Member

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    I wonder about Eastern Europe. Hassidic-style Jews apparently come from there, and the Balkans seem to be under Turkish rule, but there's no mention at all of Poland or Russia.
     
  11. Stahlheim Prussian Junkers For Clinton

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    This is the explanation Turtledove uses in his Crosstime Traffic novel In High Places for why Christian cultures embraced science while Muslim ones did not.
     
  12. ETGalaxy Long live the King of America!

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    I've read the first few pages online, and I think it has quite a few interesting ideas, such as the Seljuk constitutional monarchy in Turkey and what sounds like a Muslim United States analogue, and it's interesting to see familiar western concepts viewed from the perspective of a Muslim-dominated world. The characters do feel a bit bland and cheesy, but it's not terrible. I do, however, wish that things like movies and airplanes were called by alternate names. While it's certainly easier to pick up on when they're called by their OTL names, I think it would be a bit more interesting if alternate names were utilized.
     
  13. Skallagrim Not the one from YouTube. Different other fellow.

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    Thanks for the review, @Greg Grant! It sounds like the POD is actually the best thing about the book, but that might just be my conception of things because I'm such a fanboy of both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.

    This whole idea has merit, I'd say (though see above; I'm biased). The whole move away from a more Platonist take on Christianity (which involved actively expecting the Millennium around the year 1000 and being often more strongly focused on both the immaterial and the mystical than on the earthly and the rational) towards a more Aristotelian take (central idea: God's creation can be explained and understood through reason -- arguably the defining idea of what we call "the West" -- and the physical world, being god's creation, is worth experiencing in itself) was undeniably a factor in shaping European history. Scholasticism, yay! But on the other hand, even I have some caveats. Orthodox Christianity stayed far closer to the Platonist take on Christianity (hence the fact that Orthodoxy is far more set on the central role of divine mysteries), but this hardly doomed the Orthodox world to some truly backward position in the world. (I'd argue that the Mongols had waaaaaay more to do with certain problems in russian history around that time, for instance, and that being threatened and then conquered by the Ottomans was a deciding factor for Souh-Eastern Europe).

    So what I'm saying is: a Europe that features no Scholasticism would no doubt be weaker and less likely to make certain scientific and technological leaps, but would -- much like an Eastern Europe that never encountered Mongols or Ottomans -- hardly be destined to become a meaningless backwater. In the same way, attributing the OTL problems of large parts of the islamic world to "an error in philosophy" seems... a bit bold, I'd say.

    All this being said, if someone wrote a good story (or even a mediocre one!) set in a world that realistically imagines a Europe without Scholisticism and an Islamic would that allohistorically develops its own version of Scholasticism instead... I'd be waiting in line to buy a copy!
     
  14. Malta Kirked

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    Having read “Mirage” I am confused by the ending.
     
  15. Polish Eagle AntiFa Supersoldier

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    There is an OTL theory that the decline of the Islamic world was the fault of basically one philosopher who is blamed for ‘closing the Islamic mind.’ Turtledove’s book is based on that theory. I personally think it’s bunk—scientific innovation did not grind to a halt in the Islamic world IOTL. The Ottoman astronomer Ali Qushji in the fifteenth century made many of the same philosophical and empirical leaps that Copernicus and his successors would later on, and he self-consciously rejected Aristotle’s entire body of work!

    There is an odd drop-off of Islamic contribution to natural science after 1580, whose cause I am not qualified enough to speculate on, but the fact that Ottoman astronomy was no worse than its European counterpart until that time inclines me not to credit Al-Ghazali for an intellectual trend that post-dates his work by 500 years.
     
  16. Odinson Well-Known Member

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    I thought it was an... ok book. Certainly not a guns of the South, or a hot war, but it was ok. I'm glad I read it, but the characters did seem to be rather bland. And what even was their job? Go walk around Rome. "Hey, Dawud, look, it's a Roman pillar. Man, I wish Italy wss still Roman, they had stuff together." Walk around Rome more. "Oh hey, maybe you can fix your terrorist problem by fighting terrorists? Ok, bye Lorenzo III, we're going to Tuscany." It wad just strange about it. Also, the vague, small hints about European history isn't enough. We know why the mid east is home to it's current problems. Cold war, rise and fall of Arab nationalism, etc. But what of Europe? Yeah, they fight terrorists, Germany is a bunch of states, but why? Why didn't it unify? What happened during the great war between Egypt and Persia? It just gives faint questions with no answers.
     
  17. solaraquarion Member

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    But more then all those "criticisms" there's also the fact that where the sort of actual economic history? Who's the Adam Smith, and the Ricardo of the "Global South". Who's the Marx of the Global South, Was there a Soviet Union Expy? The questions that are not answered makes the book bad, and also all those expy's in the book, and yet, there are nothing of the kind of major changes that makes things a lot more interesting. Was there a Communist Revolution in China, which in 1947 it happened in Russia? God, there are quite a bit of amount of Fixes that need to happen to make the work interesting
     
  18. Odinson Well-Known Member

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    The only real sense of politics outside Italy (which is almost non existent) is that Japan is apparently an arms dealer and still possibly militant. And there is a couple of mentions of an Indian Adolf Hitler analog
     
  19. GorillaTheater Well-Known Member

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    I appreciate not only the substance of the review, but your flair for writing as well!
     
  20. Filo Count of Santa Lucia

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    I, onestly, think that Turtledove is overrated.
    On this site I have read better tls and fictions than Turtledove's ones.
     
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