So I’ve already talked about two Harry Turtledove series before, Darkness and WorldWar, so now it’s time to talk about Turtledove’s other famous book series. The unofficially named “Timeline-191” (and sometimes Southern Victory) comprises of eleven books detailing the history of the two American countries after the South won the American Civil War. Told from multiple viewpoints from both countries (and one or two thrown in from Canada), we experience the tragic history of these two countries as they are drawn into conflict again and again up until 1945. Now, upfront, I honestly think this may be Turtledove’s weakest major series but before I divulge why, let’s dive into the series and see what makes it so special and one of the most famous alternate history stories of our modern day and age.
So the first Timeline-191 book is called How Few Remain. In this book we understand why the South won the American Civil War and what happened to the two countries shortly after. After a brief prologue dedicated to the defeat of the Union, the book picks up twenty years later where the two American countries pick up arms again and fight each other but this time it’s for the C.S.A. acquisition of two Mexican provinces. Fearing that the C.S.A. would become too strong, the U.S.A. declares war on the C.S.A. but is abysmally defeated thanks to the C.S.A.’s reliable generals and its alliance with France and Britain.
How Few Remain is probably the most interesting book in the series as it can stand by itself very easily. The book retains all of the Second Mexican War and its immediate consequences as well and as such, many of our stories have a clear beginning and a satisfying ending. What’s more, unlike the rest of the series, all of our viewpoint characters follow historical characters like Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. The book also offers very reasonable ideas of what the world may be like in 1881 such as the C.S.A’s continual involvement with France and Britain and the dominance of Democrats in the U.S.A. up until the 1880s. Now, Turtledove could have just left How Few Remain as it is but he decided to take this story he created and make a mega book series out of it. What follows is the next logical step in our timeline, and a 30 year jump with it, the Great War.
This is my favorite part of the series and it’s awesome. Because the C.S.A. allied itself with France and Britain, the U.S.A., in return, allied itself with Germany and the Austria-Hungary Empire to acquire its own strong allies. Of course, everything went to Hell in a handbasket, thanks to a certain Archduke, and now, not only do you have the mess of Europe fighting each other, but now you got the U.S.A. fighting Canada and the C.S.A! It’s a literal world war at this point.
So the first reason why the Great War trilogy is my favorite part in Timeline-191 is how it’s not immediately clear who will win this war. It could honestly go either way. In How Few Remain, right from the start, the U.S.A. is kind of done for so there’s not as much incentive to read the book. But for the Great War, it’s so close and even that any small event can help push the war one way or another.
I also like how Turtledove just didn’t pull any punches with the harshness of trench warfare and the dire outlook for many of the soldier’s lives. The settings and characters are highly realistic and don’t offer that sweet storytelling guidelines many of us are familiar with. It’s very similar to the Song of Ice and Fire series, actually. I also like how diverse our viewpoint characters are ranging from regular soldiers, to spies, farmers, commanders, and politicians. We definitely get a full spectrum of viewpoints that cue us in what’s happening in this crazy world. Turtledove excels at this and has done this before in the Darkness and Worldwar series. This is a guilty pleasure but honestly one of my favorite POV characters is Gordon McSweeney who is a stupid, badass bigot. The things this guy says and does in this series is great.
Now, there is a third reason but let me get back to that in a moment…
So, spoilers, the U.S.A. along with the other Central Powers, won the Great War. The series doesn’t end there though as we are treated to our next trilogy in the series, American Empire. This trilogy is kind of weak as there are jumps of time within the books. The three books cover about twenty years altogether meaning there’s a lot of plot development crammed into characters whom we already don’t spend much time with.
However, the second, and primary reason, why the Timeline-191 series falters at this point is Turtledove’s over reliance in incorporating plot developments that mirror our real world. I’m serious. Turtledove oversaturates his story with parallel events that almost defeats the purpose of an alternate history genre. Long story short, the C.S.A. becomes Nazi Germany and fights the U.S.A. again in the 1940s. And guess what? The C.S.A. loses! Go figure!
Now, the next four books in the series, called Settling Accounts, is entertaining to read but by this point, all sense of disbelief is kind of thrown to the curb and we aren’t as engaged with the story as we kind of know what will happen in the end. I even stopped reading the series by this point due to the aforementioned reasons and it was getting depressing fast. You see, throwing in a little nod here or there in reference to our timeline is fun or all but this is just overkill.
This is why I liked the Great War part of the storyline the best. True, there are historical references in this trilogy but it doesn’t control the story as much as it does later on. The trilogy is fun, original, and not bogged down by its sheer alternate history glory. I’ve actually read online that supposedly, the U.S.A. was going to lose the Great War and actually become the next fascist power in North America. But then Turtledove decided later on that that wasn’t going to happen which explains several things. One, Jake Featherston, who becomes the C.S.A.’s Hitler, was a pretty nice, if awkward, guy early on before he almost suddenly develops this hatred against African Americans; and two, Gordon McSweeney was probably going to be the U.S.A.’s version of Hitler until Turtledove pulled the plug on that idea and killed him off, rather inexplicably, at the end of the trilogy. Very interesting fan theory for sure and I’m interested to see how that story could have turned out. Regardless, because of this switch, the Great War trilogy is not as tied down compared to the rest of the series and that’s what makes it so good. My advice is to read How Few Remain and the Great War trilogy and just stop there.
There’s a lot more to talk about this series so I’ll just leave that for another time. For now, I’m curious to see if you like this series and if you agree with me or not. If not, is there another alternate history story you like better involving the American Civil War? Let me know!