by Harry Turtledove

Del Rey


486pp/$26.00/June 2000

The Great War:  Breakthroughs

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Harry Turtledove begins The Great War:  Breakthroughs as he has begun the previous two novels in the series, with George Enos living his life and demonstrating how the great events are effecting the everyman.  This opens up nearly one-hundred pages of reintroducing the characters and situations Turtledove has set up in the previous books, ranging from Sam Carsten on a ship near Argentina to Lucien Galtier on his farm in Quťbec.

Once past the reintroductions of his characters, Turtledove returns to the meat of the action, bringing characters from various storylines together, such as his team up of President Theodore Roosevelt, General George Custer and Major Irving Morrell in Tennessee, and playing them against each other.  An ongoing combination of characters  is the game of cat and mouse between Roger Kimballís submersible, The Bonefish and George Enosís destroyer USS Ericsson.   Incidents such as these play themselves out along the entire twisting line of the Southern and Northern fronts.

For all the military action, the real meat of the story remains in the more personal storylines, whether Anne Colletonís desire for revenge against Cassius and Scipio or the problems caused by distance and the war for Confederate soldier Jefferson Pinkard and his wife, Emily.  Turtledove also provides several juxtapositions.  Just as Enos is representative of the average Northerner, Pinkard plays the same role in the South.  Furthermore, the menís personal stories mirror each other despite one being on a ship in the Atlantic and the other being on the front lines in Texas.

In previous books, the action has tended to bog down a little, giving the reader an indication of the tediousness of the war.  In Breakthroughs, as the name suggests, the war begins to liven up and storylines begin to move closer to the denouement.  Not only is the war achieving breakthroughs, but the characters are doing so on an individual basis, whether it is Nellie Semphroch attempting to deal with her past or Flora Hamburger, finally taking her seat in Congress.

The careful groundwork Turtledove laid in American Front and Walk in Hell now allows him to fully realize his characters with only a few strokes.  Being able to see the end of the war, nearly all of his characters change their outlook on life, some for the better, some for the worse, all giving an indication that they are preparing to face a life after wartime, although not all prepared to leave their gripes and their weapons behind.  Some characters who Turtledove has made only light use of in earlier novels take on a larger role, whether it is President Theodore Roosevelt, who seems to pop up all across the country, to Gordon McSweeney, who began as a support character and only took his role in the front ranks when Paul Mantarakis was killed. 

Turtledove has repeatedly demonstrated, in the Great War novels and other books, that he is not above killing characters the reader has grown to love (or hate), and Breakthroughs is no different.  A readerís knowledge that Turtledove may kill their favorite character at any moment heightens the tension throughout the novel in a way sadly missing from many books and films in which there is no question of the primary character surviving everything that can be thrown at him.

After three novels, Turtledoveís characters have generally managed to define themselves well, however the various subchapters Turtledove employs still are too short.  Just as the reader is getting comfortable with the characters and plot of a segment, Turtledove turns his attention to another character.

Turtledove provides many political and personal surprises throughout the novel.  While these surprises are introduced, Turtledove does not fully examine their consequences, clearly setting the stage for the final book of the series, The Great War:  Settling Accounts (Del Rey, 2001).  Although a third novel of a series of four, Breakthroughs is the strongest of The Great War novels in pacing, characterization, and overall writing.

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