Thoughts on “Last Orders”, and “The War That Came Early”

So, I’ve finished the last book in “The War That Came Early”.

The war in Europe ultimately ends when Hitler declares war on the United States and his own generals actually manage to overthrow him in a coup, by sending someone to assassinate him when he speaks in a rioting Munster and then having the army take over. I have to say that the details of the coup are actually interesting and the reactions of the various viewpoint characters to having to suppress the unrest in Munster and deal with the coup are interesting … except for those of Baatz. It seems to me that the reason to switch to him as a viewpoint character is to give us the inside track into those who remain loyal to the established regime, but since that’s the regime of Hitler the character can’t be sympathetic (it seems, although they could have done it with Rudel since he was set up to be that way. Then again, he works best the way he was done), which leaves us with Baatz. But then we simply don’t care about his viewpoint and why he does things, because he’s always been a jerk and remains one throughout the entire book. Even attempts to soften his character leave him as nothing more than a bully, and so any of his struggles just don’t resonate. As I said, while I like how Rudel was done in this — as I liked that character — this could have been done with someone who was generally a good and respectable person who felt that they had given their oath and so had to follow through with it.

Also, that Hitler would declare war on the United States is a bit unrealistic. Hitler declared war on the United States in the first place because he had promised Japan to do it, and he had done that in the hopes of getting them to attack Russia and thus relieve some of the pressure there. Here, he obviously didn’t make that promise, and Japan invaded Russia on its own before signing a truce with them. So what would he think declaring war on the United States would get him? Sure, you might be able to see it as a fit of pique — and Hitler was known for that — but it just seems too convenient a mistake for him to make, as it returns things to the status quo (mostly) and sets up his downfall. It’s portrayed on the jacket as a desperate move, but it doesn’t work as a desperate move because there’s no indication that he could get anything out of it, even Japan attacking Russia again. So the really big move in the book doesn’t really ring true for me.

The biggest problem with this book, which carries over to the series, is that it doesn’t actually tie up all or even most of the loose ends. Sure, the European war gets wrapped up, but the United States and Russia still have to deal with Japan. But we could live with that, I suppose, but even the personal threads don’t really get wrapped up. The closest we really have to one is with Peggy Druce, but that was just her getting divorced and then meeting someone else. Theo and Saul hang around in Munster, and Theo meets Saul’s sister and there’s a hint that they might get together, but that’s a very short scene. At least, though, we can imagine it going however we want, which isn’t true for a lot of the other characters, like the Czech sniper. This left me feeling about the series they way I felt about “Fate of the Jedi”, that the resolutions and the end of the series and thus the series as a whole, ultimately, is only there to set up the next series that must be coming, and so we don’t get a proper resolution. As I said when I talked about “Fate of the Jedi”, any big series like this will leave things unresolved or at least not fully resolved, but good works leave that as a “The adventure continues …” or “Life goes on …” type of thing, but here things that we followed throughout the entire series never really get resolved, and the work presented them as things that we definitely would want to see the resolution to.

Ultimately, I found the series disappointing. The first big problem I have with it is that, as I have been saying, as a work of alternate history it lacks the “history” part. Not much changes and we don’t really get to see, in detail, what impact the changes had on society as while. This is at least in part because we almost never get to see what the people in charge were thinking and how the changes impacted that, so any changes we do have seem to come from nowhere, and in general most of the changes are temporary until we return to the status quo. The only big differences aren’t really explored, with Germany remaining mostly intact and Russia and the United States combining to go after Japan … both of which happen at the very end of the series. It was a long road to get there, and then it gets cut off just, it seems, when it’s getting a bit interesting.

The series is also way too long. Based on the actual content, you could cut the second book entirely and combine the last two books and not lose much of interest. Maybe Turtledove was trying to demonstrate the long slog of war, but he gets repetitive and so we get that long before the end of the book, and the last thing an author should want is to make reading his books a slog. This also makes them more expensive to buy, as we have to buy six books, and these things are no longer cheap.

Ultimately, for me, my assessment of a work tends to be on whether or not it was worth the money, and the first thing I assess is if I’d read or watch it again. This series was an entertaining enough read, and so my first inclination was to say that while it wouldn’t be something that I re-read repeatedly, I might re-read it again at some point. But on further reflection, I asked myself why I would, in fact, actually re-read it. What would be the point in re-reading it now that I knew the outcome? It wasn’t an entertaining enough read for me to just read it for enjoyment, and the twists weren’t interesting enough to read them again, and so there seems to be little reason for me to re-read the series. I just have no reason to want to re-read it again. Historically, it isn’t interesting enough for me to just explore the history again — and, remember, I’ve read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” twice already, and will almost certainly read it again at some point — and the characters and their stories aren’t interesting enough either. And that’s coming from someone who re-reads both the “X-Wing” series of books and the “Wing Commander” series of books at least once a year (and usually a few times a year, especially for the former), with one of the reasons I like the latter is because of Forstchen’s wonderful melding of history into the works. And yet none of that really happens here.

Now, this leads to a comment on what might be killing science fiction: the books are too expensive. The regular price for these books was in the $20 range, and I had to buy six of them, tax included. And since many of them go in and out of stock, if you come across a series and might want to read all of it you might have to get all of them as soon as you can. This, then, requires a pretty significant up-front investment. Heck, even one book at $20 can be steep if you aren’t sure if you’ll like it. For me, it wasn’t much of an issue, as my budget included and could easily absorb this, but for others — and even for me — the issue is that there are a number of books out there and if you only have a limited budget for books you want to make sure that you choose one that you’ll likely enjoy. And how do you do that? As I’ve opined before, all the current political crap does is make it that I can’t trust anyone’s assessment of what makes a work good. I can’t look at Hugo or Nebula awards (especially since with the latest you have people crowing about how almost all of the winners were female authors as if that, in and of itself, showed that the selections were good somehow) without wondering if it’s the politics of the author or the book that people are crowing about as opposed to the quality of the work. And even I can’t afford to simply buy books and hope that they work out for me, because of the prices of them. And I’m not willing to go electronic just yet.

At any rate, here I don’t really regret buying them, but if I’d known then what I know now about the series I wouldn’t have bought them. And I went for Turtledove’s stuff because having liked his previous works it seemed like a safe bet. That I lost on this bet doesn’t in any way make me feel like my idea of just retreating to my boxes of old books isn’t the ideal way for me to proceed.

Well, just to prove that I’m a glutton for punishment, I’m now moving on to “Settling Accounts”, and since I didn’t realize that there was a fourth book in the series I just had to buy that one before even starting this series. That being said, this finalizes a world that I had already enjoyed, so this is an even safer bet. We’ll see how this works out.

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