Reviewed by Colin Salt.
It's got swastikas. What are the odds it's an Axis-victory AH?
Picture courtesy Amazon.
Harry Turtledove is an author who has many great strengths and just as many great weaknesses. One very interesting thing about his Axis victory AH In The Presence of Mine Enemies is how he somehow manages to show both off in great detail. It’s strangely impressive, if not making for the best actual book.
The book tells the story of the Gimpels, a family of secret Jews in a world where the Germans won WW2 because the US stayed out of the war and stayed isolationist until the Germans blasted the Yanks into submission with nuclear ICBMs. Since then, the German society and economy has fallen into crumbling stagnation in a way suspiciously similar to the late 1980s USSR in real life. The Soviet parallel, however blatant, not only works for the story, but also steers the book out of a common trap in Axis victory fiction.
Turtledove can be very good at individual set pieces. This book was adapted and expanded from the initial revelation of her family’s secret to one of the Gimpel daughters. That story and its inclusion are regarded as one of Turtledove’s best, something I agree with. The “August Coup” is also done terrifically, and the way it is foiled is both prescient and excellent.
Now the way the book steered out of the “Super Mecha Hitler” pitfall of Axis Victory AH is obvious. There’s no wunderwaffe beyond said totally offscreen and barely mentioned ICBMs; the parallel is ti the decidedly unattractive collapsing USSR, and the economy is mentioned accurately as being a basket case that runs on plunder. The second half of that is the reformist Nazis are still Nazis. They want more freedom – for “Proper Aryans”, and the August Coup parallel fails not by some fluffy appeal to human rights, but by pointing out that one of the main plotters is also secretly possessing Jewish ancestry.
This rings true in the backsliding of Russia after the book was published, as well as it being increasingly clear that a lot of the opposition to Communism in the former Warsaw Pact was rooted in illiberal nationalism. But that’s another story.
So that’s the good. The very bad is basically the rest of the novel. It is atrociously paced. Much of it is devoted to an uninteresting love struggle amidst very interesting societal upheaval. And there exists scene after scene of the characters playing the card game bridge, in something that probably appeals to hardcore fans of that game and absolutely no one else.
There’s a reason why Turtledove is widely considered to be better at short stories than novels and this shows why. He can make a good skeleton, but is not nearly as capable of making good meat between the bones.
I wouldn’t call this a good novel, but it’s at least interesting in its flaws and traits. And you could have done worse.
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