Second part of the alternate-world-war trilogy (Bombs Away, 2015) whose entirely plausible conjecture was: what if President Harry Truman had used nuclear weapons during the Korean War?
Well, here he did, disastrously instigating a nuclear war. Atomic bombs have already devastated cities in China, Russia, and Europe, and on America’s west coast. Despite a few set pieces showing us the world’s leaders (though not as they formulate their decisions) and politics outside the war (the specter of McCarthyism), Turtledove once again develops his narrative via a substantial cast of ordinary people, both civilians and military, and their particular circumstances. Fascinating concurrences emerge. In Germany, currently occupied by Soviet invaders, Luisa Hozzel, the wife of a WWII Wehrmacht soldier now fighting alongside the Americans, gets sent to a Siberian labor camp. By contrast, Marian Staley and her daughter cope with life in a refugee camp outside now-radioactive Seattle. The members of Boris Gribkov’s Soviet bomber crew spend their free time drinking vodka and thwarting the political police, while Bruce McNulty, an American bomber pilot stationed in England, tiptoes toward romance with a widowed British pub owner. Elsewhere, other characters familiar from the first book experience action in the European and Korean theaters, some finding themselves allied with former enemies while others fight against opponents who once were comrades. In still other places less affected by the bombs and the battles, some semblance of normal life prevails. Even if he’s not creating completely memorable personalities, Turtledove’s patented, highly effective methodology—a steady sequence of sharply etched passages allowing him to accrue telling detail around each individual actor—ensures readers become attached to them and invested in their futures.
Though the Korean War hasn’t generally been regarded as a major departure point in human history by alternate-world theorists, Turtledove’s surmise reminds us just how dangerously unpredictable the nuclear option remains.