by Harry Turtledove

Del Rey


503pp/$27.95/July 2002

American Empire:  The Center Cannot Hold

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Harry Turtledove continues to chronicle the post-war history of the United States and the Confederate States in American Empire:  The Center Cannot Hold.  As with the earlier books in the series, this one follows the stories of numerous viewpoint characters ranging from the Canadian guerilla wannabe Mary McGregor to the Confederate President wannabe Jake Featherston.  While earlier books have examined periods of months, The Center Cannot Hold begins in 1924 and runs through the beginning of 1933.

The society of the United States is changing, following an overall path similar to that following in our own world, with more and more people playing the stock market on margin, just as happened before the crash of 1929.  Even good socialists, like Herman Bruck and Maria Tresca from Flora Hamburger Blackfordís New York district see nothing wrong in playing the capitalist game.

In the Confederacy, Turtledoveís choice of point of view characters continues to make the Freedom Party appear much stronger than he claims it is throughout the novel.  Even as Jake Featherstonís party continues to lose ground following the disastrous assassination of Wade Hampton IV, focusing on Featherston, Jefferson Pinkard and Anne Colleton, who shares politics, if not ideology with Featherston, increases the sense of the partyís importance.

As often occurs in Turtledoveís multi-character volumes, the author jumps from character to character.  While this provides a greater view of the society and political reality of the world, it also means that readers donít necessarily get to spend a lot of time looking at the world through a character who has become one of their favorites.  Furthermore, Turtledoveís proclivity for killing off viewpoint characters means that those characters most sympathetic to some readers cease to be able to offer a porthole into the world.

The Center Cannot Hold is littered with redundancies as Turtledove keeps mentioning his charactersí same thoughts and motivations.  While this serves a good purpose in the early chapters when readers are becoming re-acquainted with the myriad characters and their plotlines, by the third or fourth repetition, it becomes, well, redundant.  The reader only needs so many reminders that George Enos, Jr. didn't really get to know his father or Nellie Jacobs had lived an earlier life in which she slept with the late Bill Roach.

The course of history advances in The Center Cannot Hold more than the plotlines for the various individual characters.  Even while characters get married and have children, they focus their attention on the political upheaval in both United and Confederate States.  While earlier books in the series have focused almost exclusively on war, The Center Cannot Hold gives a much more rounded view of the society Turtledove has been building.  The result is a world which has finally become fully realized.

The Center Cannot Hold suffers from being the middle book of a series which builds on previous works.  However, at the same time, it exhibits strength from its position by being able to build on what has come before in a manner which makes the world come to life.  At the end, the novel has set up a situation which Turtledove has been foreshadowing since "The Great War" series, which indicates a payoff for those who have read the series to this point.  It will be interesting to see the parallels the future book draws to our own world as well as the differences. 

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