Wednesday, May 20, 2015

James Young's Acts of War

It's almost Memorial Day here in the States and what is a SF/F reviewer to do? How about reviewing an alternate history set in World War II? It works for me and I am, after all, the blog owner. Maybe next year I'll do some space marines, but this year it's James Young's Acts of War. Oh, and yes, Alt Hist IS a facet of SF, at least on this blog. Honestly, I may be cheating a bit because I love Alt Hist but it most definitely has a speculative quality to it and the S in SF/F often does refer to Speculative right? So yes, this stuff has a home on my blog and this was a good one to start on. When Young asked me to review this, he specifically asked if I considered alternate history to be SF, so I thought I'd mention it. I never knew there was a controversy here. I mean, I've been finding my Harry Turtledove books in the SF section for almost twenty years now.

Acts of War takes place in a world where Germany forced Great Britain into an armistice before the United States enter World War II. This somehow results from the umm, "accidental" isn't quite the word I'm looking for but it will have to do, death of Adolf Hitler when a British Bomber dropped a bomb on him. Changes in Germany's government led to the gassing of London by the Luftwaffe. Germany uses the "peace" to rearm. Britain does nothing to improve its military. Japan is talked out of antagonizing the United States and doesn't bomb Pearl Harbor until spring of 1942. New countries join the Axis. Things look bleak for the United States, which is fighting the war with only the members of the British Commonwealth at its side.

Under no circumstances would I present myself as an expert in naval warfare, but I have done a lot of reading (both fiction and non-fiction) on the subject. Some of the earliest history I read on my own were non-fiction accounts of World War II naval battles and I'm a huge fan of David Weber and others who have written works of fiction that include naval combat. Tora Tora Tora and Midway were both movies that I have watched many times and own on DVD. They're both entertaining and have been praised by experts on the period for the historical accuracy.  That much being said, the battle sequences in this book are pretty epic. Young has clearly done more studying on the subject than I have and it shows. When he tells the story of a battle it all hangs together and just works. I could picture the shooting, the explosions, the bombs falling, the torpedoes moving toward the water and the gruesome injuries cause by all of the above.

Young also shows the best and worst of the US military. His heroes are heroic. More than one of them gets decorated and it's not hard to believe it. They fight hard. Some of the others, well... Every military force has members that have gotten their position through politics and family connections and Young's US Navy is no exception. The good news is that at least one of the bastards gets precisely what he deserved. The other good news is that Young managed to make me hate that guy badly enough to want him dead. An author's job is to provoke an emotional response and he has done that.

 The family ties in the book are excellent and something that I've often seen left out of this type of story. The majority of the tome follow the exploits of the Cobb family, many of which appear as members of the military. Their sister is also a central figure, as are many of their girlfriends. The romances don't always go as planned, but that's something we've all lived through, military or not. The effects of war on those left behind gets heavy treatment and that's a good thing.

Not everything here is wine and roses though. There are a few things which honestly confuse me. Foe one, the point of historical departure (that's where an Alternate History story diverges from the real world timeline) takes place in Europe when Hitler dies, but most of the action centers on the war in the Pacific. Either way works but both together creates a cognitive dissonance for me. After the first twenty or so pages Europe gets mentioned only sparingly and is nearly forgotten until a briefing near the end of the book. I just don't get that. Also, there are times when the portions of the book that don't involve combat drag a bit. It definitely gets better the longer the book goes on, but it's there. There is also a huge twist regarding the British government that doesn't get resolved and seems to be beside the main thrust of the book. Oddly enough, this volume reads almost like two separate books to me as well, with the run up to the start of war being one story and the prosecution of it afterward reading like another one. Don't get me wrong, they're both enjoyable but I remember being about halfway through this thing thinking that there was a mistake in the page count on my Nook.

Acts of War appears destined for a sequel and I'm hoping that when it comes it will clear some of this up. AoW is the second in a series and appears to be setting up something bigger to come. I want to read it because I'm hoping that a lot of what got left out here will find its way into the new one. There are a lot of threads left hanging at the end of this one and I can't wait to see Young tie them up.

Bottom line: 4.25 out of 5 sinking battleships

Acts of War
James Young
Createspace, 2014

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