Jakes, king of paperback US historicals and author of several juveniles, arrives in hardcover with more of the same: the first 950-pp. installment (1842-1861) of a trilogy about two families before, during, and after the Civil War. Northerner George Hazard (Pa. iron-works) meets Southerner Orry Main (S.C. rice plantation) when the two lads enter together as plebes at West Point in 1842: ""Orry had a feeling this pugnacious little Yankee was going to be a friend."" And so they are, of course, in the Mexican War and through summertime visits over the decades of increasing North/South discord and respective family woes. George is the luckier of the two, happily marrying Constance (a Catholic who harbors runaway slaves), then running the family business despite creepy brother Stanley's rottenness, and raising young brother Billy to follow in his West Point footsteps; the only major family problem is sister Virgilia, a seething abolitionist (the book's most objectionable prototype) who lusts for black men and eventually lives in sin with one (a runaway slave). . . till tragic involvement with John Brown at Harper's Ferry. Orry, however, has acres of misery. He loses an arm in Mexico (thanks to George and Orry's West Point nemesis--fat bully Bent). He falls in love with neighbor Madeline LaMotte, a secret octoroon whose Simon-Legree husband brutalizes her and keeps her drugged with laudanum. (Eventually, after years of self-denial, the sweethearts will be joined.) Furthermore, Orry's sister Ashton is an evil, thoroughgoing slut; his other sister Brett falls in love with Billy Hazard (a Romeo-and-Juliet romance, with Ashton joining in a LaMotte plot to kill Billy); his liberal-minded brother Cooper leaves the plantation for Charleston shipbuilding; and his wild young cousin Charles, who becomes Billy's West Point chum, is nearly killed (while serving in Texas) by that psychotic career-soldier Bent. Throughout, Jakes keeps the focus revolving efficiently--from North to South to West, with all the predictable elements: arguments over slavery, duels, cameo appearances (Calhoun, Lee, etc.), historical highlights, divided loyalties, and crinoline lustings. And, if the dialogue is wall-to-wall anachronisms and the characters are just pale Margaret Mitchell imitations (with hardly any black representation), the whole enterprise is nonetheless relatively non-exploitational and reasonably sturdy--complete with lots of plots left hanging for the sequels. (Super-villain Bent, for instance, is all set to expose Madeline as an octoroon.) Dullish but decent saga fare, then, with the Jakes byline sure to bring in a large, undemanding audience.