Last night I decided to binge-watch season 2 of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle. If you're unfamiliar with the show, it's based on a 1962 novel by Philip K. DIck premised on the idea that the United States lost the Second World War. With its defeat the U.S. is a divided and occupied land, with the Japanese in charge of the West Coast and the Germans ruling everything east of the Great Plains. The novel itself is one of my all time favorites and so far I'm enjoying the show (with a caveat regarding the direction they're taking it regarding the central twist). But watching it has highlighted something that has long bugged me about alternate histories of the war written by Americans.
Simply put, it's the conceit is that the Germany couldn't be defeated without the United States. It's inherent in the majority of U.S.-centric alternate history stories, including Dick's: without America's involvement in the war, the Nazis roll over Europe and become the racist empire everybody not associated with our current administration loves to hate. There are two things I find annoying about this, the first being that it's bogus to anyone with more than a passing history of the war. As much as Americans may hate to admit it, but the Second World War was decided on the Eastern Front: it was the Soviets who were key to destroying the Nazis' empire, not the Americans. From the summer of 1941 onward the bulk of the German war machine was engaged in the Soviets, who ground it down over the course of four years; three out of every four German soldiers killed during the war died on the Eastern Front. While the U.S. aided in this, both through their Lend-Lease program and their assaults on Germany from the west, absent these the Soviet victory was still the probable outcome.
This would be a pedantic complaint were it not for how this reflects our devaluing of the costs involved in this. We don't know exactly how many Soviet soldiers died fighting the Nazis, but the conservative estimate is 8.7 million people. By contrast, the United States lost 139,380 soldiers fighting against the Germans in Europe, which makes for a ratio of 80 Soviet soldiers killed for every American who died in combat. And that Soviet figure is just for the men and women killed in combat: the official total of war dead is 26.6 million, and that's regarded as a conservative estimate as well.
Now, I get why American writers do this, as they're writing for their audience. But it's dangerous in that it perpetuates a conceit that is deeply offensive to lots of people in the world, both the ones who sacrificed and the descendants of those who did. The thing of it is, it doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to gin up a scenario that isn't premised on the belief that our participation in the war was indispensable to Germany's defeat. Instead, though, we bask in the conceit that our novice soldiers were the ones who knocked down the Nazis — and then we wonder why the world despises us for it.
I'd been wanting to read Certain Dark Things since I first heard about it, so when it went on sale recently on Kindle I snapped up a copy and wasn't disappointed. I'm not really a massive lover of vampire stories but the premise of this, set in a present-day Mexico City in a world where various kinds of vampires are known, intrigued me enough to get me reading and the quality of the story-telling did the rest...Another positive is the fact that this is a stand-alone story in a world of trilogies and series!
Anyway, on to the story itself - it's told from the perspective of a number of different people and this is often a place where books fall down for me. Domingo is a teenage boy who works as a garbage collector in Mexico City, just about getting by after a childhood spent running errands for a local drug dealer. His path crosses that of Atl, who looks like a teenage girl but is actually the last survivor of a clan of vampires which can trace their lineage back to the Aztecs. Atl is on the run from the (different kind of) vampires who killed her family and is doing a bit of a crap job of hiding given that there aren't supposed to be any vampires in the city and she also has a massive genetically-engineered dog by her side.
On the other side of things are Nick, spoilt younger son of the clan hunting Atl - his kind of vampire can enslave humans with their blood, while Atl's kind have other abilities. Completing our roster of point of view characters is Ana, a detective in the local police whose abilities are scorned by her bosses even though she comes from 'vampire territory' outside the city and has more idea what to do if faced with one of them.
The writer drip-feeds enough information about the world-building into the storyline along the way that it feels organic rather than forced. This is, in short, also a world that makes sense; close enough to our own to feel familiar but also with convincing explanations for the things that are different. It shouldn't probably come as any surprise that it's a bit gory in parts, given that it's about vampires, but it didn't feel gratuitous. I'm not sure Certain Dark Things is something I'll want to read again but it definitely makes me want to check out more of this author's work!
Not really sure where to begin with my review for Unholy Land, which I picked up as an uncorrected proof on Netgalley - as a result, knowing little about the book and also missing the fact it was labelled as 'literary fiction' (a category which really does very little for me), I wondered if the things that didn't quite mesh together right at the beginning were just errors on the part of the author, only to discover later they were probably stylistic choices.
Anyway, on to the plot. Initially, Unholy Land is alternate history - in this case, a history where instead of settling in Israel, Jews fleeing from Europe settled an area of central Africa and made for themselves a land called Palestina. For anyone who knows something of the current situation in the Middle East, there's something a little ironic about the fact that, as a result, the Jewish community in this scenario call themselves Palestinians. Anyway, our main character is a writer of pulp detective stories called Lior who is returning to Palestina after living in Germany, having recently suffered a terrible loss.
However, as we discover throughout the book, there is more going on here than initially meets the eye and Lior himself begins to have trouble sorting out his own memories from what everyone else seems to think has happened. Landing in Palestina, where the inhabitants are busy building a massive wall to secure their ownership of the land, Lior finds himself involved in the murder of an old friend and that's just the beginning of the difficulties he faces.The spaces between the different realities are wearing thin.
This isn't the easiest novel to read and half the time I'm pretty sure I had little idea exactly what was going on, not helped by the number of points of view that get used along the way. I was also a little thrown by how autobiographical it is - having read some of the author's comments before the story itself, I could see where his experience was cropping up as Lior's, though it's quite possible given the nature of the story that this was again a deliberate choice. It's just a little too much work to keep track of what's going on and I'm left feeling glad that I picked this up where and how I did, as it's not something I'll want to read again.
I received this book as an uncorrected proof from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
I am done with this series.
A Meeting at Corvallis, the third book in first Emberverse trilogy, unfortunately didn't return to the magic of the 1st in this series. Too much battle info-dumping, not enough people behaving believably.
That said, I did cry
at the death of Mike Havel
But I'm just done. If I want the minutia of military campaigns and what people ate, I'll go read some L.E. Modesitt Jr. At least his villains aren't such caricatures.