In this alternative history debut, France’s refusal to enter World War II leaves Russia ever more vulnerable to German attacks.
This first installment in a planned alternative history series takes place between February 1938 and June 1940 and ranges from Philadelphia to Paris as it delves into the backroom deliberations and battles that take World War II in a slightly different direction. When French Deputy Foreign Minister Etienne Descoteaux vows “We will never join Britain in another war” early in the novel, it sounds like famous last words, but France holds firm even after German forces invade Poland and Russia. The plot switches between its various strands, spending time with Staff Sgt. Rudolf “Rudi” Kleime and other German soldiers at the front; Descoteaux as he navigates a complicated personal life (a new wife and a longtime mistress who, helpfully, has another boyfriend at the German embassy); James John Reilly, a Pennsylvania engineer working on tanks for the Soviet Union; Exner Updegrove, a minor member of the English nobility whose hesitation about voting for war is complicated by the Romanov heritage of his wife, Maria; and Alexander “Sasha” Grotnov, a Red Army conscript. Quick jumps among the different subplots keep the novel pacy, and the dialogue and action scenes feel authentic. Dugan and Clouatre include plenty of details about military vehicles and artillery, especially Rudi’s panzer (nicknamed Helga) and the Russian KV-1 tank. But new characters are still being introduced halfway through, and it’s challenging to keep them straight—a country-by-country cast list would have been helpful. Typos (“steads” for steeds; “We have done much worst”; “The next sixth months”; “Etienne’s legs had went rubbery”) need some attention, but the general writing quality remains strong. As the suspenseful novel zeroes in on the German invasion of Russia, Sasha becomes a relatable central character and counterpart to Rudi. One particularly wrenching scene has Sasha returning home to discover a gruesome tableau. The Führer himself turns up in the terrific last segment. It should be exciting to see where the series goes next.
This gripping, character-driven novel subtly tweaks the story of World War II’s European theater.