Harry Turtledove's "Darkness" series

Thoughts brought up by a recent thread in CS, which changed direction toward the works of Harry Turtledove – including a particular novel series by him. This is his six-book “Darkness” series. It seems to be held in very low regard, both by people who are not keen on Turtledove anyway; and by Turtledove fans, most of whom seem to see this series as an uncharacteristic “turkey” of the author’s. Browsing around the SDMB, I’ve seen indications of a thread started, I think about ten years ago, giving strongly adverse criticism of the early volumes of the series, which the thread-starter had lately read; I would have “bumped” this thread, but was unable to locate it via the Search facility.

I feel decidedly eccentric in having had from the first, a great liking for Turtledove’s “Darkness” series – sufficient for me to have re-read it a couple of times. Attempted summary, for those unfamiliar: it’s a fantasy-novels cycle recounting the events of a global war, on an Earth-like, human-inhabited planet – modelled on the course of a somewhat simplifies and “mutated” World War II (which conflict this author seems unable to stay away from). In this universe, science and technology are low-level in our terms, and largely replaced by magic (another often-used conceit of the author’s); whereas heavy-duty air, land and sea force is accomplished by the use of trained giant beasts – variously flying, quadrupedal, and aquatic – native to the planet.

The different nations involved in the conflict, are to a considerable extent based by the author on nations of “our world”; but with substituting-and-switching on more than one level. Thus, the “bully nation” which goes around behaving aggressively and invading its neighbours – counterpart in role, to Germany in WWII – has a Latinate-language-sounding name, and the names of its people and places are Italian, largely borrowings of real Italian names. The nation which corresponds to Poland, has proper names from the Anglo-Saxons of our world. (There is some uncertainty as to which our-world nations – or conflations thereof – some of the lesser participants in the conflict, represent.)

I suspect that very many people would – and indeed do – find all the foregoing, utter twaddle and a complete turn-off. Feel that I could easily have gone the same way: but I am so silly in whatever sort, as to enjoy geopolitical-type puzzles and nonsense of this kind. And, I started the series with really no idea what it was going to be about. The first book commences in the Poland-counterpart country, with juvenile characters with Anglo-Saxon-like names attending a school where fearsomely strict discipline obtains, and studying quaint subjects such as herblore. I was thus looking to get a tale set many centuries in the past – likely something resembling Videssos, only in a northern-European setting: was quite blindsided, in a good way, by its turning out instead, to be a World War II “be-alike”, in a familiar-yet-alien milieu – found this surprise a delightful one, and was captivated by the series, instantly and throughout.

This said – I can quite see why many readers find this series – well, I’ve seen epithets ranging from “dire” to “unreadable”, to plain obscene. Would be interested to hear anyone’s views – pro, con, or in-between.

I get the conceit and it didn’t bother me. The problem with the series is just that it wasn’t clever enough for its length. I like Turtledove but it wasn’t his best work. It reminded me a little bit of “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” in that Presence (which is about a family of secret Jews in an alternate history Berlin where the Nazis won) was a punch in the gut as a short story but fell apart as a novel. Or like his recent two series…supervolcano, which has the potential to be about how the world deals with Yellowstone erupting but turned into a cop mending fences with his family, or the war that came early which has been five books about what world war ii would have been like if it broke out over the sudetenland. The answer is not very different. He desperately needs an editor.

I love the *Darkness * series. I’ve got the whole set stashed away for when I need some escapism.

While Turtledove could be described as a pedestrian stylist at best, some of the viewpoint characters drag a bit, and if you know how WWII ended the ending’s spoiled for you. But it’s World War II with Dragons people! It’s great fun playing spot the historical analogue as you go along for the ride.

Generally I think Turtledove has some decent ideas, but I find his writing to be a leaden slog. The problem with the Darkness series is that there’s no good idea to carry one through. Switching the names of the nations and the weapons doesn’t change the fact that all he’s doing is retelling the history of WWII in dull prose.

Every character has one characteristic, and he’ll inform the reader of that characteristic every single time – I get it, she has blonde hair! The simplest thoughts and motivations are spelled out in needless detail – “The place he needed to be, he realized, was on the other side of the street. This meant that if he wanted to be in that place, he was going to have to cross, he thought to himself; from one side to the other. He needed to think through how much he really wanted to be in that place, because that was how he would have to decide whether or not to cross the street.”

I agree, Darkness not his best work – just one that, a bit weirdly, I greatly like. Re Presence: I have like you, read and been impressed by the short story. Haven’t read the novel – have seen not-very-favourable references to it elsewhere; plus, have vowed to avoid anything further by Turtledove, on his flogged-to-death themes of World War II or a successful Third Reich. Darkness is OK by me in that respect – I discovered it about a dozen years, and umpteen subsequent milkings of WWII-related themes, ago !)

I have to agree there !

Thanks – it’s good to be reassured that I’m not a solitary and super-eccentric weirdo…

I don’t, myself, find the writing dull; plus, for me, things in the series are brightened-up, and interest enhanced, by the various departures from the true historical events of WWII.

Yes – he can be a bit like that, and fairly often so. I confess that to quite some extent I like Turtledove “in spite of”, rather than “because of”.

If you change your mind, Shetl Days isn’t a bad short story/novella. It’s sort of the opposite of “Presence”.

Thanks for this info. It’s basically novels – stand-alone, or multiple – by him on “that theme”, which I see as a no-no. Short stories / novellas I can always handle: will look out for this one.

Two topics which in themselves bore me rigid, are vampires; and Jack the Ripper. When I found Turtledove’s short story Gentlemen of the Shade, which combines those two subjects, I nonetheless looked at its initial pages, not very hopefully. To my surprise, found it witty and quite readable – read, and enjoyed. The guy has to have something going for him as an author – counterbalancing his often-remarked-on downsides.

It’s available here, by the way http://www.tor.com/stories/2011/04/shtetl-days

One weird thing about the Darkness series is that Turtledove has pretty exact parallels for a lot of the WWII players, like Finland, the USSR, the Middle East, etc., but the Kaunians are both the victors of a previous war, who speak a language derived from an ancient empire, and a racial group despised in Algrave and other nations, making Kaunians a stand in for both the French and the Jews (which is particularly odd when one considers things like the Dreyfus Affair).

Given my fascination with history and love of good fantasy, you’d think I’d be a natural Turtledove fan. But my issue with Turtledove has always been that he is wayyyy to liberal in his borrowing from history. It actually crimps my enjoyment.

I mean I read and liked the Videssos series sorta. But is such a straight translation of late Byzantine history “with magic” that is sort of annoyed me at the same time. It just oddly makes me feel over and over like I should be slagging his creativity while I am reading his books. It actually distracts me from the storyline, which isn’t a good thing.

So I’ve kind of given up on him. I know a lot of alternate history fans that love his stuff, but personally I’d rather read a straight historical novel. Turtledove, inadvertently or not, sorta confabulates alternate history and historical novels in a way that drives me bonkers.

He did write some straight up historical fiction, under the name H.L. Turteltaub…Justinian, which is a “memoir” of Justinian II, and the “Rhodian Traders” novels; Over the Wine Dark Sea, The Gryphon’s Skull, The Sacred Land, and Owls to Athens, about these two cousins from Rhodes who are merchants during the Wars of the Diadochi, and their adventures as they try to make money and stay out of the war of the rival armies and intrigues.

I liked the Rhodian Traders books and his “Household Gods” collaboration. Those brought a lot of deft exploration of exotic settings, which seemed to elevate or energize his writing style.

Very many thanks.

An idiosyncracy of Darkness is that parts of it, as you say, faithfully follow the historical WWII; while in other parts, actual history is simplified / compressed / mutated. There are basically fewer nations and races in Derlavai, than in Earth’s eastern hemisphere – and in respect of the countries of western and eastern Europe conquered and occupied by Germany from 1940 on: Algarve’s corresponding victims are conflated into just three countries. The Kaunian land of Valmiera is, I agree, sorta-kinda France; but Jelgava, also occupied, is Kaunian too – and it’s debatable which real-life country or countries, Jelgava might represent.

The Kaunian minority in Forthweg (portrayed as a bit different from Valmierans and Jelgavans – more “concentratedly” and archaically Kaunian), and mostly hated by the Forthwegian majority, who are glad to see the Algarvians send them off to death, and often help in that process: are an obvious match for the Jews. Yet the Algarvian occupation of Kaunian Valmiera and Jelgava, while harsh, is less atrocious than that meted out to some occupied territories; and the Algarvians do not ship the people of V. and J. off wholesale, to be massacred for their life-energies. Looked at fully rationally, this part of the plot is weak and illogical, to the point of verging on nonsense – however, I find it readable and exciting nonsense.

I loved all the Videssos books – that could owe something to the fact that my knowledge of real-world Byzantine history is almost zero. Sometimes, ignorance can be bliss…

I have yet to get further than the first in the “Rhodian Traders” series, Over the Wine Dark Sea. Could happen; but while I recognise the quality of the book, I could not get super-keen. In part, because of what I – and many, I think – find to be Turtledove’s worst failing: he gets obsessed with things, and goes on and on about them completely ad nauseam. In this particular book, it was those sodding peacocks…

I delighted in Household Gods, in collaboration with Judith Tarr. Turtledove is without doubt a very flawed writer; but for me, when he’s good, he’s good (suppose that that itself, sounds like a Turtledoveism).

I disagree with the last part. I take it we can use open spoilers?

The Kaunians are an amalgam of the Jews and the Romans, and are the majority in Valmiera and Jelgava. There’s no need for the Algarvians to massacre them in the East, as the main front for most of the war is in the West against Unkerlant. Even if they wished to do so it would have been next to impossible as there is no majority of others to collaborate with them as there is in Forthweg, so although there are some round-ups of Resistance types in the East (‘Night and Fog’) there’s no destruction of entire towns and villages as they local population wouldn’t have stood for it. Hell there are even units of Eastern Kaunians raised for the war in the West.

And while the Algarvians are intent on destroying symbols of past Kaunian glory (destroying triumphal arches and the like) there’s no systematic goal of a Kaunian genocide. They only resort to mass murder once their initial invasion of Unkerlant stalls. So there is some logic to the differing treatments of Eastern and Western Kaunianity in my opinion.

Add to that some Algarvians admiration for ancient Kaunians - Spinello is a keen antiquary and the most popular literature in Algarve (that Bembo often reads) are lurid novels set in the Kaunian Empire.

The notion of the Kaunians as an amalgam of the Jews and Romans, has never before crossed my mind (trying to exculpate self – those two would seem decidedly unlikely bedfellows in the context of “our universe”); but I do see where you’re coming from here. Long-time antagonism between the Germans and relatives [Algarvic peoples] and the Romans and their heirs (Teutoburg Forest and all that, and later stuff) – Valmiera and Jelgava as Europe’s Latinate countries – yes. (France [= Valmiera, more or less] was IIRC the only fully Latin-family country in Europe, conquered and occupied by Germany in WWII – whereby one could wonder, what’s with Jelgava? – but total 100% parallels on this scene, are not to be had.)

The West, as against East, Kaunians (those in Forthweg, being West) factor, had likewise rather eluded me. More sense, and more parallels with the real thing, in the series; revealed by your post, than I had hitherto seen.

Algarvian admiration for Kaunian culture, I saw from the books as being rather confined to the intellectual elite. And of course there are people like Spinello, as you mention, who have no problem with doing cognitive dissonance in this area: he appreciates and relishes the products of ancient Kaunian civilisation; while despising, and being ready to maltreat and brutalise, present-day Kaunian humans. As regards the Algarvian common folk: I saw their Kaunian-Empire-set “prolefeed”, as full of hate and contempt for the degenerate, corrupt, cruel Kaunians of long ago – contrasting them with the rugged, virile Algarvian folk, long persecuted and done down by the Kaunians. With a “side order” of dwelling, in a titillatory way, on the Kaunians’ hedonism and licence (especially sexual), with a mixture of disgust and envy. Equivalents of same in “our world”, are not far to seek.

Jelgava seems to be an imperfect analogue of Francist Spain - nice weather, terrible despot ruler, but part of the War.

You’re right about the admiration thing, I took it too far.

Yes. Forthweg seemed an obvious analog for Poland - it’s between Algrave and the analog of the Soviet Union, and divided by the two of them.

I’ve seen this suggested before; but have difficulty buying it. Would seem to me – using your words – an extremely imperfect analogue. I’d see more of a likeness (though still very unlike) between Jelgava and WWII-era Greece. It could be, of course, that in respect of this bit of the whole milieu, the author is very much going his own way.

Oh, yes: Forthweg is Poland in every particular – even down to having also been split between Algarve and Unkerlant before the First World War-analogue, and having regained its independence only after that conflict.

Just for fun, Jelgava is a city in Latvia, and so is Balvi, which is the in series capital of Jelgava.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Baltic States; and find it rather delightful that for Kaunian places and people, Turtledove uses Latvian and Lithuanian names. Valmiera and its capital Priekule, are also towns in Latvia. Lithuanian town-names show up in the series, too; e.g. Dukstas and Adutiskis.