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Review: “Bombs Away” by Harry Turtledove

Title: Bombs Away
Author: Harry Turtledove
Series: The Hot War #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2015

Believe it or not, this is actually the first ever Turtledove I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’ve managed to build a small collection, grabbing assorted works at garage and library sales over the years, but they always seem to be the middle bits of series. Not this time! This time I’m in on the ground floor for his new series exploring what might have happened had the Cold War gone hot in the early days. In the later days, that’s no fun since it would mostly just result in the planet becoming a cinder….

At the height of the Korean War, with Red Chinese forces pouring over the border, the idea of using nuclear weapons to turn the tide was under serious consideration. In the world we inherited President Truman decided against unleashing that genie, but now Harry Turtledove turns his pen to exploring the potential consequences of such action. Come along for the ride in Bombs Away as Turtledove picks apart the threads of history and weaves them together once again in a different and altogether horrifying configuration….

There’s a reason Harry Turtledove is billed as “The Master of Alternate History.” Several reasons, in fact. The man seems to possess an unparalleled grasp of history, knowing instinctively just where to push in order to set events onto a new, believable course. Just as importantly, his characters all feel very real—figures both fictional and historical leap off the page and pull you into their world. While story thrives on conflict, Turtledove stands testament to the fact that you don’t necessarily need a villain, shying away from easy caricature in favor of focusing on ordinary men doing the best they can. From the White House to the trenches of Korea, from the cockpit of a B-29 bomber to the streets of divided Germany, Harry Turtledove gives a stellar introduction to a hellish world that could have been.

CONTENT: Harsh, R-rated language, widespread but not gratuitous. In a world sprouting mushroom clouds, profanity seems appropriate…. Strong violence, as you would expect from World War III. Occasional sexual content, semi-explicit. Some of the characters are racist, and the fallout of the Holocaust is dealt with to a degree.

This is a longer version of a review I did for the Manhattan Book Review.

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Review: “Orders Is Orders” by L. Ron Hubbard

Title: Orders Is Orders
Author: L. Ron Hubbard
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Galaxy Press, 2009

Once more I find myself reviewing one of L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp stories from the Golden Age! Thanks to Galaxy Press and the Goodreads FirstReads program for getting me the book in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on the substance of this review except to ensure its existence. Well, okay, it also moved up my queue when one of Galaxy’s marketing people sent me an email asking when they could expect to see it, but that’s the extent of the meddling I promise! It’s always nice to see the publisher taking an interest in readers’ opinions.

I’ve ranted before about the disrespect pulp fiction often gets, and I’m not going to do it again here. Short version: there’s nothing wrong with stories that exist solely for the entertainment of the reader. This isn’t high literature or the next Great American Novel, and you know that when you pick it up. This is adventure and danger and good triumphing over evil in the end. The prose will be a bit on the lurid, overly-dramatic side, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s par for the course. Don’t like it? Go read something else. I find it refreshing on occasion.

The time is 1937. Imperial Japan has launched a full-scale invasion of China, intent on exploiting their resources for the glory of the Emperor. (Curious? Here’s the Wikipedia article on the war.) The Chinese are being beaten back with heavy casualties, and the United States is unwilling to get involved, but there’s a problem: the American embassy in Shunkien is under siege. More accurately, Shunkien is under siege, and without food and antibiotics to combat the cholera outbreak cropping up in the city all of the Americans hiding inside will die. Two hundred miles and multiple armies stand between the USS Miami and Shunkien. The United States is unwilling to go to war. Nevertheless, orders are to get the supplies and medicine to the beleaguered embassy. And so we join Sergeant James Mitchell and PFC “Toughey” Spivits as they attempt to make the treacherous overland supply run through innumerable obstacles. Can Mitchell and Toughey make it two hundred miles with the supplies before the besieged city falls to the Japanese? Pick up the book and see for yourself! It’s a tale of courage, temptation, unexpected meetings and unflinching determination. It’s also darn good fun.

Like I said, this was fun. It’s kind of odd, sitting here in 2014, to see history through the eyes of those to whom it was current events. This story was published in December 1937, a full four years before Pearl Harbor woke the sleeping giant of the United States and pitted its wrath against the might of Imperial Japan. You get no sense of that impending conflict here, but the underlying tensions between the powers do exist. This is a time and place not often explored in fiction, at least so far as I’ve seen. I’m not saying this is a scholarly piece, by any means, but as a history major it is interesting to see the world through this lens for a little while. The characters are stock, but no less interesting for all that. You know as soon as they describe Mitchell as having a drinking problem that this character flaw will play a role in the story. You know as soon as the mission and deadline are given that our heroes will arrive at the eleventh hour through great feats of derring-do and/or cunning evasion of the enemy. You know as soon as you meet her that the abandoned American girl they encounter will end up warming to Mitchell. That predictability doesn’t negate the fun to be had in the journey. It’s what you sign up for when you pick up pulp fiction. It comes with the territory. I was minorly annoyed at the negative portrayal of the missionary character, but I know Hubbard is no fan of Christians and so it came as no surprise. The cover art has nothing to really do with the story, but that’s okay. They couldn’t use the original art since Orders Is Orders wasn’t the headline tale when it was first published. It looks like that honor went to a dueling tale. Oh well, no matter.

CONTENT: Mild language, more than many publications of the era would have allowed. Not gratuitous by any means, but not as tame as the other stories from the same period I’ve reviewed. Some violence, given the setting. There’s talk of a character being a fan dancer, but no real sexual content.

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