By Colin Salt
Chris Nuttall is a prolific writer of various genres, including alternate history.
In Storm Front, the opening of a series, he writes in that well-worn area of alternate history, the “Nazi Victory”. It’s 1985, and the United States is one of two major world superpowers (this may sound slightly familiar). The other is a German Third Reich which stretches into Africa and the former USSR, now named Germany East. The status quo is about to be upended, and it’s viewed through the eyes of many people, from the top to the bottom of society.
The Harry Turtledove influence here (and not just in the form of a character with that name as an obvious reference) is gigantic. Namely, this contains two big similarities.
The first is being in the subgenre that I like to call “Pop AH”. This involves two things. The first is a clear topic that non-history enthusiasts will still recognize-in this case, a victorious Third Reich. The second is an alternate history told more in the form of parallels to historical events (in this case, the later Soviet Union), than any sort of actual “If this divergence happened, then this would result…” extrapolation. I must state this is not always a bad thing, any more than other “cheap thrillers” having simpler plots is always a bad thing.
The second is a writing style that can be summed up as “Historical fiction written in the fashion of a technothriller”. There’s a focus on the bigger picture over the small-scale characters, a lot of viewpoint characters, and a lot of exposition to let the reader know the full world. And yes, in this book that exposition frequently takes the form of groups of important people sitting in conference rooms talking a lot.
While Storm Front is better paced than the obvious comparison, the novel In the Presence of Mine Enemies, it still has a lot of Turtledove’s flaws. There’s the constant repetition of various themes, the themes and explorations themselves aren’t the most original or well-executed, and the characters are very “stock”.
If I had to list the single biggest flaw, it’s that Nuttall does a lot more telling than showing. This is exacerbated both by frequently telling something that would easy to just show and frequently showing something before then telling the reader about it anyway. The second biggest is that the worldbuilding and characterization are too shallow to really sustain the extended descriptions. This might have worked better for a truly imaginative alternate history setting, but this isn’t it.
And the third biggest issue isn’t really Nuttall’s fault, but rather an inherent consequence of taking such a well-worn path. Events that are treated as shocking revelations to the characters will not be surprising in the slightest to the readers. For example, an old war veteran turns out to have witnessed and committed atrocities on the Eastern Front.
That being said, the symbolism/parallelism is a little less blatant than in some of Turtledove’s books, and the conclusion, as events finally get going in motion and the problems with the Reich finally come to a head, is legitimately well done. Yes, it’s the setup for a later installment, but it still moves with a pace and emotion that’s totally unlike the clunky early acts. It could be just that non-repetitive action is happening at all, or it could be that events more suitable for a technothriller work better alongside a plot setup made for one (after all, the last act includes political maneuvering and airdropped commandos).
But whatever the cause, the last portion is far and away the best part of Storm Front.
In conclusion, my feelings on this book are strange. On one hand, I could see all the flaws mentioned above. But on the other, it still left me wanting to read the next entry in the series. So maybe it somehow had more than the sum of its parts. Maybe it was the kind of thing that despite a lot of issues (especially to someone historically astute), it remained somewhat enjoyable as a fluffy alternate history “snack”.
Fittingly, this describes a lot of Harry Turtledove’s better work as well, meaning Nuttall’s book has even more similarity to its influencer.
Colin Salt reviews other genres at his blog: Fuldapocalypse Fiction