Harry Turtledove, Into The Darkness (Tor, 1999)

Harry Turtledove has been writing for years, with a concentration on alternative history. I enjoyed his earlier book, The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, enormously and was happy to see that he'd returned to a magic-using universe for this new series. I liked his recent alternative histories more than I expected to (alternative history, with its frequent emphasis on military strategy, is not among my favorite genres), and found George R.R. Martin's high fantasy A Game of Thrones and its sequel stunning; I was expecting great things from Into the Darkness.

I was disappointed. It's not a bad book, in my opinion, but it's not a particularly good one, either. I think its greatest weakness lies in the number of viewpoint characters -- 15 of them. While this is a large book, it's not large enough to make 15 different characters distinctive, especially since five are identified as "common soldiers" in the various nations and have parallel experiences, and several of the rest are also seen primarily in their roles as soldiers. It was very hard for me to keep track of who was who, and where was where -- several of the countries also seemed to differ mainly in their names. The map and character lists helped, but distinctive voices would have helped even more.

I was also disappointed that the magic was not more fully explored. One character is a theoretical mage, and the segments devoted to her were quite interesting; her nation was also more distinctively drawn. Apart from this, soldiers dropped magical eggs from dragons, rather than bombs from airplanes. Spies "bug" with crystals rather than electronics. Turtledove missed the chance to re-invent military technology in a more complete way, relying instead on "magical" analogs to real-world mechanisms. It would have been very interesting to see how the underlying metaphors on which the magic is based vary from nation to nation, and how this affects the effectiveness of their spells versus the other nations'. While Turtledove referred to the nations' spell-tech as being distinctive, he did not explore this.

He also relies on cliches to distinguish the nations from each other culturally. There is apparently next to no interbreeding in his world; nationality can be easily determined by hair and skin color. This is not explained by physical incompatibility or taboo, and seems quite unlikely and unrealistic. In our world some humans have a strong sexual attraction to difference, and any racial purity is more culturally determined than genetically based; if his is different, it would be nice to be offered an explanation for that difference.

He takes a similar simplistic view of manners and clothing, allowing no cross-cultural drift of the sort we see across our world, even between nations that hate each other. The characters keep to their ethnic styles even to the point of endangering themselves, which I find unrealistic. For example, in Forthweg the ethnic Kaunians are an oppressed minority. Despite systemwide discrimination the Kaunian women persist in wearing tight, short tunics over form-fitting pants -- an outfit considerably more revealing than the ethnic Forthwegian styles. The Forthwegian men leer at the Kaunian women. But nowhere does Turtledove seem to notice that, under those circumstances, wearing revealing clothes substantially increases the Kaunian women's risk of rape. If anything, women of oppressed minorities are likely to wear clothes more modest than those of the prevailing culture, not less. This is one example of Turtledove's failure to think through aspects of his cultures rather than relying on cliches.

The plot involves several pugnacious nations that disregard advice to war on only one front at a time. There's some foreshadowing of peasant revolts, a possibility for future volumes; if so, then this volume is the set-up, and it does have that feel as we watch the chess pieces being moved into position. That may be more interesting, although characters and cultures who come alive can make any plot interesting, while the most clever plot can bore when enacted by paper dolls.

All in all, I don't think this novel was particularly bad or good. It might be a functional set-up to an interesting series, if Turtledove pays more attention in the future to his characters and cultures, perhaps by reducing the number of viewpoints. As it is, I found it a mildly interesting read.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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