Word count: 1040
I’ve had a run of non-novels in American Front and the middle two volumes of Otherland. Yes, they look like novels when you buy them remaindered, but when you get them home and start reading things aren’t that simple anymore.
American Front is part of the Great War series by Harry Turtledove, built on previous novels in which the South won the Civil War and proceeded to whomp the damnyankees in a subsequent skirmish. Now both Americas are dragged into World War I on the sides of their allies - the USA with the Kaiser and the CSA with England and France - and hold their own war to end all wars on their own soil, plus Canada’s.
So far, so good. Where American Front disappoints is in the machine-gun approach to plot. The would-be novel follows several characters through the first year or so of the war, and by several I mean a representative cross-section of both nations, plus a Canadian. The cast of POV characters alone was well beyond my ability to track, so I found the various soldiers on both sides blended into one another. Some characters stood out, such as the US pilot whose career tracked the evolution of the airplane’s role in the war from surveillance to machine-gunning to the interruptor that let him fire through the propellors without shooting them off. A fisherman from Boston grabbed my attention, of course, and the Canadian farmer dealing with US occupation was also a good read. Also of note were a New York socialist, a black butler on a plantation and his white mistress, a black laborer in occupied CSA territory who sides with the rebs as the devil he knows, and a Southern steelworker dealing with not Rosie the Riveter’s, but Pericles the Negro’s unexpected appearance in his mills.
They were all great stories, even the ones I haven’t mentioned about general’s aide, the calvary officer, the surprise US attack on the Sandwich Islands, an infantryman or two I couldn’t keep straight, the mother and daughter in reb-occupied D.C., and whichever other main characters I’m forgetting now. Any one of them would have made a great short story, but split up across 550 pages they were each frustrating. Maybe this episodic soap-opera style of writing is common in genres I don’t read; if so, I’m glad I’m missing it.
Otherland by Tad Wiliams suffers from the same cast-of-thousands episodic effect, though not quite as badly. I made it through the River of Blue Fire and Mountain of Black Glass always wanting to get back to my favorite characters, who were the Sydney police officers investigating a murder committed long before by one of the bad guys. Somewhere near the middle I began to enjoy Mountain much more than previously; I realized that was because most of the main characters were gathering at Priam’s Walls, and though they didn’t reunite into one group very successfully, at least they were mostly in the same universe for a while, which made the plot cohere much better.
I’ve heard two rumors about Otherland - one that it was planned as six novels but cut down to four, and the other that it was originally supposed to be a trilogy. Judging by the coherence of the end of Volume III, I now favor the trilogy theory. I have the last volume already, and finishing it will be nearly as much of a relief as KSR’s Mars trilogy; I like the Otherland characters, but that makes the epic style all the more frustrating.