January 20, 2008

Book Review: Opening Atlantis by Harry Turtledove

Week 2 of 2008 and the Book A Week challenge brings us Opening Atlantis, the latest offering from master of alternate history Harry Turtledove. I've been a fan of Turtledove's since I read Guns Of The South many, many years ago.

The premise of the book seems to be that part of North American (everything east of the Mississippi, judging from the cover art) broke off from the main continent. This landmass is much closer to Europe than the New World was, and thus is discovered and colonized much quicker (1451).
Part 1 of the book covers the discovery of the new continent, which is quickly dubbed "Atlantis." Breton fishermen know of the existence of Atlantis, and give this knowledge to an English fisherman in exchange for a third of his catch. The Englishmen see Atlantis as a place ripe for colonization, and move quickly to start a settlement there.

Things go quite well for them, even as French and Spanish colonies are founded on the coast south of the English. Atlantis is, after all, big enough for everyone. Until an English noble who backed the wrong people in the Wars of the Roses is exiled to Atlantis, and decides to make it his own kingdom.

Part 1 has definite American Revolution overtones, with it's rejection of unfairly-imposed taxation. It also sets the stage for settler/European conflict which dots the rest of the book. Part 1 does it's job, though; it sets the stage for the book (and the trilogy, for that matter), and introduces us to the family whose history we will be following -- the Radcliffes.

Part 2 shows Atlantis 200 years later, and a conflict between pirates led by Red Rodney Radcliffe and the English settlers of Stuart led by his cousin William Radcliff. Red Rodney has been preying on all manner of shipping around Atlantis, and this has made him some enemies. The settlers ally themselves with English and Dutch sailors to fight the pirates.

We see more tension between Atlanteans and Europeans in part 2. This section parallels the battles with privateers and pirates in our own timeline in the 1600s. We start to see that Atlanteans view themselves as independent, and that their European cousins see them as backwoods bumpkins who certainly aren't proper subjects of the Crown.

Part 3 gives us this timeline's version of the French and Indian War. This is one of the things that I really don't enjoy in alternate history, and it's a weakness that I found in Turtledove's Great War/Settling Accounts saga -- the determination to present parallels to wars that were fought in our own timeline. It becomes very predictable, and you end up reading to see which character is going to be the new timeline's Lincoln, or Washington, or Rommel, etc. The account of English Atlantean guerilla warfare in French and Spanish territory was interesting, but I'm hoping that the next book in the series doesn't start out with a meeting of a doppleganger Continental Congress getting ready to declare independence from England.

I really liked the fact that Turtledove is focusing on one family as the movers and shakers of English Atlantis. That's something new for him, and I think it works well. The book was enjoyable, with a couple of reservations that I've mentioned above. I wish there was an actual map of Atlantis in the book, though that is a possibility for the second book, I'm sure. There are some anachronisms in the book, which reviewers on Amazon.com have been quick to point out, but those aren't glaring to me. I was amazed at the ability of the English to start a successful settlement right away in Atlantis, but these settlers did not face many of the challenges that the first settlers in North America faced when they arrived here. Opening Atlantis is not up to Turtledove's usual standards, and is far inferior to Ruled Britannia, but is still worth reading. I'll have to read the second book of this trilogy to see if it really has any promise, though.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 10:16 PM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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1 I've always wanted to read one of his books -- any you'd say is the best?

Posted by: JK at January 24, 2008 01:48 AM (IIl47)

2 Ruled Britannia is excellent, In The Presence of Mine Enemies is also good. Guns of the South is fun, but alt-history purists don't like it because it involves time travel. How Few Remain is a great book, but it lead to the whole Great War/Settling Accounts mess. Just alone, though, it's good.

Posted by: Warren at January 24, 2008 02:12 PM (6ZwcZ)

3 I'd suggest A Different Flesh, a fixup of stories set in a world where the Americas were shut off from the Old World and so the ancestors of the Amerinds never settled there and hunted the megafauna to extinction and the Jamestown settlers encounter hominids (homo habilis or australopithecines). Ruled Britannia is also really good, as is The Two Georges (written with Richard Dreyfus).

Posted by: Stu Shiffman at January 30, 2008 04:00 PM (z9gCU)

4 > I've always wanted to read one of his books -- any you'd say is the best? Guns of the South, really, is the best introduction to him. Purists may complain about elements of the story, but it's, to me, a minor quibble. I like his work, he's one of the authors I get in hardback rather than waiting for paperbacks, but I do agree with the above that it seems to me that he takes the easy route in much of his fiction by resetting/retelling historical events by shifting the mileau. As such, I find his strict alternate history to be weaker quality than the "vaguely" alternate history, like Videssos. How many, for example, have noticed the fact that the Videssos map is basically Europe and Eastern Asia mirror imaged, and many of the stories are tales from actual history? I'd rank the three completed Videssos series as the next best introduction after Guns of the South. Read Krispos, then the Legion, then Time of Troubles. The latter sequence is told from both side of the events which created Byzantium out of the old Eastern Roman Empire. Then try the Hellenic Traders series (Over The Wine Dark Sea, etc.). The "Elabon" books are fun, too, as is Ruled Brittanica. After that, you're on your own. You'll note that I've tended to avoid his alternate history, as most of it is ok, but not spectacular. I sort of think of his alternate history as a way to get a feel for history, more than as really good alternate history. The WorldWar series is decent, but it seems as though the final book (of "Colonization") was shoehorned into a single book instead of two or three. It also suffers from the basic issue of any alternate history -- you may postulate a set of roles, but assuming that the same people will arise (i.e., in analogues) after a major change has been introduced -- esp. decades down the line -- has always struck me as problematic. It's the problem I always had with the "Sliders" TV series -- a certain person is far too much a confluence of special forces for that person to exist long after a major change is introduced. It's sloppy storytelling to think that a society with a vast change (such as a matriarchy instead of a patriarchy since time immemorial) would still have "you" and "me" in it in 2008 -- esp. as an reversed sex analogue, to boot... So you would not expect to see, say, a recognizable John F. Kennedy arising after the events of WorldWar. Turtledove does deal with this better in the "Timeline-191" series than he did in "Colonization", though I personally doubt if the flow of the 20th century was quite as inevitable that its WWII would look anything like our WWII, after the events of the alternate WWI. I recommend his books, but think his best stuff is either the historical fiction or the non-alternate history stuff (Videssos technically qualifies but less so than much of the other stuff).

Posted by: O Bloody Hell at April 30, 2008 01:32 AM (skoor)

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