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Review: Guns of the South

By Colin Salt

Harry Turtledove's breakout novel, Guns of the South is the story of time travellers altering the American Civil War by giving the Confederates AK-47s. I find it an interesting book, and not just for its premise. Some novels are what I call "Median 51%", where they just stay consistently middling from start to finish. This is a "Mean 51%" book. What it does well it does very well, and what it does badly it does very poorly.

I'll start with the good parts. First, the novel is excellent in its use of viewpoint characters. Jumping from the perspectives of Robert E. Lee and low-ranking soldier Nate Caudell is a work of genius. It allows for different scenes without being clunky, and its top and (almost) bottom perspectives make for a fascinating book. Second, it manages to make its action scenes interesting despite the huge disparity in firepower. In the hands of a lesser author, it could have easily become a post-1991 Tom Clancy book in terms of dull one-sidedness. But even with Confederates with AKs against Unionists with muskets, it never feels that way.

There's also a lot of interesting worldbuilding and setting touches that I feel Turtledove may have actually regressed from in his later parallelism-heavy alternate histories. The Confederates are almost as impressed by modern instant rations as they are by the wundergewehrs. The AKs are referred to in the book as "Repeaters" because the concept of a magazine-fed firearm is already known in that time period. Anyone who knows the capability of Khyber or Filipino gunsmiths will not be surprised to find the North building their own knockoffs later in the book.

Besides that, the fundamentals are better than a lot of later Turtledoves. His strength in writing good individual set pieces comes through, and the period between them is much better handled than it is in many other books by the same author. The prose never feels bad or blocky.

But the sweet also comes with the sour. The most obvious flaw is the very uncomfortable Confederate apologism, mentioned before on this site. I want to stress that I have always considered this an issue with the art and not the artist. I believe it to be a combination of going ahead with earlier prevailing thoughts (the way a World War II historical fiction writer, especially a Cold War one, would go along with the "Clean Wehrmacht" and "Overharsh Versailles" legends) and trying to make characters a modern audience would find sympathetic. Turtledove has since not dwelled on the American Civil War and has written a series where the Confederacy devolves into a Nazi parallel.

So while I'm highly forgiving of the artist, that doesn't change that making the Confederacy give up slavery far too easily is awkward and icky. As is whitewashing (word choice deliberate) someone who was, as the mass kidnappings of black northerners in the Gettysburg campaign showed, not just a slaveowner but a slaver.

Beyond this, the flaws shows in how terrible the antagonists are. The Afrikaner time travellers themselves rank as some of the worst opponents I've seen in fiction-and I've read a lot. They're puppy kickers who exist to make the Confederates look better in race relations by comparison, and they conveniently fail to use their future-tech when the plot requires it.

So Guns of the South is an erratic, frustrating book that shows its author and genre at both its best and worst. Its place in both Turtledove's career and the development of AH is undeniable, and its highs and lows make it a more interesting book to review than a simply decent one.


Colin Salt reviews other genres at his blog: Fuldapocalypse Fiction and has written The Smithtown Unit and its sequel for Sea Lion Press


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