THE MANSTEIN ALTERNATIVE
By Joe Avinger
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Joe Avinger's alternate history novel The Manstein Alternative has an interesting structure that almost makes it feel as if it is an outline for a more complete work. Opening in 1917, Erich von Manstein convinces the German High Command not to pursue indescriminate submarine warfare. The new directive results in Manstein being appointed to pursue peace in Washington, D.C., resulting in a different outcome for World War I. The novel then jumps to 1936 when Manstein serves as the Chancellor of Germany while a different Spanish Civil War rages. Between the two sections and at the end of the novel, Avinger includes a listing of historical characters and a timeline showing changes between our own world and the world he envisions.
The first third of the novel focuses on Manstein, written in the first person, as he makes his suggestion about the use of submarines in World War I to the powers that be and gets assigned to Washington to implement the plan and try to bring about a diplomatic resolution to the war. Although Manstein is the catalyst for the changes in this world, he seems reasonably passive in this section, being carried along by the events and the motives of the people around him rather than driving them. His distance from events, often reported by Manstein as what he has heard from newspapers or via telegrams, further enforces the feeling that he is not an active participant in these events. Some of his characters in this section also don't quite ring true. Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, for instance, was very pro-British in real life, but that doesn't come across in The Manstein Alternative.
While Manstein was the narrator of the first section of the novel, in the second section, set nineteen years later, his is only one of several viewpoint characters, although he is the only one whose sections are written in the first person. The Chancellor of Germany in place of Adolf Hitler, his duties seem mostly to involve eating breakfast with his son and body guard and occasionally reading dispatches. The character's passivity from the earlier section carries over and the brief timeline that shows him becoming Chancellor doesn't really explain how he managed to get the position.
Most of the characters in the second section are active in the Spanish Civil War. Avinger keeps each of his sections dealing with an individual short, so they are somewhat disjointed. He also doesn't always tie their actions together, so while there is a sense of what is happening in some small part of Spain, there is no overarching sense of the path that history is taking or how the pieces fit together, something that could have easily been done with the dispatches Manstein reads or having one character in a strategic position rather than merely in tactical positions. His one non-combatant, a Spanish woman who works as a cook and maid for the British in Gibraltar seems to be a random insertion, although she proves to be the emotional heart of the novel.
Much of the book feels like it is an outline for a more detailed alternate history, both in the two major narrative portions and due to the outlining of what happens after each of the narrative sections. There is the sense that Avinger is still working on this project. The fact that the second section on the Spanish Civil War is called a prelude seems to support a continuation. The current novel, however, doesn't feel like a complete beginning, but merely a step toward the final product.
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