Speaking of alternate histories, this one begins in 1999 in a world where Britain made a separate peace with Germany in 1941, preventing US entry into the war and pitting them against Japan, Mao, and the USSR in a series of economically crippling wars. The Jews have a refuge in Madagascar, and Nazi Germany faded away after its own grinding fight against the Russians. This is merely the setting for a framing story in which a popular historian collects documentation about twin brother Olympians from Britain and their role in forging this peace. So, we’re very much in the same territory as Priest’s The Prestige with historical mysteries, paired journals relating the story from different perspectives, and the pervading theme of doubling.
Also like The Prestige, this novel is a puzzle box. The reader gets to see the pieces and put them together themselves. Unlike The Prestige, however, there’s not much of a solution to the puzzle. It raises a lot of questions, and it comes up with some evocative scenes, but it doesn’t provide a lot of answers. The heart of the novel is the two brothers, Joe and Jack Sawyer, though both use the initials J. L., which causes a lot of bureaucratic confusion. Joe is a committed pacifist in “the Good War.” The very basis of his philosophy is challenged by the war, and the violence he sees while working as an ambulance driver during the blitz. Jack captains bombers for the RAF, and he sees the toll of the war on civilians…inflicts it in fact. They’re both in love with the same woman, they both admire and feel hated by the other, and they both have severe doubts about their roles in the war. I can’t say that I connected with either of these characters, but they were well drawn.
Winston Churchill and Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess also both loom large in the book, both have their own doubles (and then some?) and both are quite interesting. Though I did quibble with some points, especially Joe’s push for peace having any chance of persuading Churchill, the research was meticulous. But, after Robinson’s opus, which is not just a historical novel, but a novel about history, the “alternate history” aspect of this novel seemed very thin. Priest’s prose is interesting. It’s incredibly pleasant to read, but it is on the dry and formal side. This is a bit of an issue in a novel written in several different voices. All come off the same, for the most part, especially in their interest in technical details, which, again, make for very readable, rich descriptions, but didn’t convince. That’s true of the novel as a whole as well – it drew me in, but as it became clearer we were headed somewhere ambiguous, I lost interest in the work.
Like Take Back Plenty, this is a novel that won the two big British sf awards but had very little impact in the United States (it’s not in print here). And again, the book is certainly worth checking out, but it’s exclusion from most of the US awards doesn’t strike me as a huge injustice. I liked The Prestige more.