Monday, December 12, 2011

Opening Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove

Opening Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove.  ROC, 2007.  440 pp.  978-0-451-46174-2.

... in which we hear of the exploits of the Radcliffe family as they discover, settle, and lead a new community on the island of Atlantis.

Harry Turtledove is most famous for his alternate history novels.  In this book, the first of a trilogy, Turtledove explores the idea of an extra continent (or large island) in the Atlantic Ocean.  Although this island is named Atlantis by its discoverers, it's not actually the lost Atlantis of legend.  As you can see from the cover art above, Atlantis is basically the eastern United States, broken off from North America and now situated in the middle of the Atlantic.  Opening Atlantis follows the Radcliffe family through several generations after the founding of Atlantis.  The book is divided into three parts.  The first part is set in the mid-1400s during the War of the Roses, and follows Edward Radcliffe and his sons Richard and Henry as they discover Atlantis and bring the first wave of European settlers to this new world.  The second part is set about two centuries later, and follows the confrontation between Red Rodney Radcliffe (pirate) and his cousin William Radcliff (who changed his last name so as not to be associated with his pirate cousin).  The third part of the novel follows Victor Radcliff a few generations later, as he witnesses mounting tensions between English, French, and Spanish settlers, as well as tensions between the Europeans and their slaves.

I'll start with the good things about this book.  I really, really liked the setting.  It was really interesting to see how this imaginary extra continent was different from the real geography of the eastern USA, and Turtledove clearly had a lot of fun inventing imaginary animals to populate this new continent.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the new continent a great deal.  I also liked how this imaginary alternate history still followed a lot of the major trends of real history, with the tensions between the different nationalities of settlers and the eventual tensions between the Europeans and their slaves.  In Turtledove's alternate history, there were no native people living on Atlantis, but the European explorers did go over to the main part of North America and take some of those native people as slaves in addition to the slaves brought over from Africa.  The book ended with the clear intention of moving towards total independence for the settlers of Atlantis, which is another historical detail that is interesting to examine next to the real historical events.

Unfortunately, the cool setting and interesting alternate history were not enough to make this book good.  First of all, I am not really a big fan of the structure of the book.  At 440 pages, when the book is divided into three separate stories spaced centuries apart, the novel is essentially composed of three novellas.  I would have strongly preferred to have one longer story with richer detail and more realistic characters.  I can see how Turtledove clearly wanted to hit certain parts of history, and if he wanted to stay in a trilogy format for the whole series, he clearly had to do some condensing somewhere.  However, it would have been really easy to just make it a four book series by making the first and third parts of this novel into their own novels, and omitting the really pointless pirate part entirely.  At less than 100 pages, the pirate part of the book did nothing for me, and it really only seemed to exist so Turtledove could have an excuse to write about pirates and prostitutes and sea battles with explosions.

My next complaint is that I didn't really care for Turtledove's writing style a great deal.  Stylistically, the book was nothing special, and there were a lot of places where I felt like something big was missing from the narrative.  The dialog was mostly stiff and fake-sounding, with most characters sounding more-or-less exactly like the other characters.  Also (this is completely a useless point, but still something that annoyed me), Turtledove used the word "squawk" too much.  It seemed like every time a woman appeared on the page, she ended up squawking about something or squawking as she was startled or squawking as she fell off the bed.  I don't know if the women in Turtledove's life are particularly squawk-y, but I found it kind of distracting, especially since there were very, very few women in the book at all.

Finally, the characters.  Since no single character is in more than a third of the book, it was sort of hard to connect to any of them.  Only two of them felt even vaguely real-ish to me (Edward Radcliffe and Victor Radcliff), but the majority of them seemed like caricatures (fisherman who pines for the sea, mountainman who pines for the mountains, pirate with a prostitute lover, etc).  In addition to being flat and lifeless, none of them were very sympathetic characters.  There were a few that I would probably be indifferent to, if I met them today, but most of them were kind of hateful.  A great deal of this is probably due to Turtledove trying to keep them historically accurate, which unfortunately involves a lot of things like terrible racism (treating the "copperskins" from North America and the "blackies" from Africa like animals and expressing surprise that their rivals, the French and Spanish, were capable of being civilized).  There was also a lot of really cavalier raping of the wilderness; at the beginning, men were slaughtering the giant birds of Atlantis just because they could do it easily, and they showed no remorse at basically devouring the new wilderness whole.  Historical realism or not, my 21st-century brain has a really hard time connecting with these people, which made it sort of hard to care about whether they lived or died in their adventures.

In short, the premise of this book held a lot of promise and could have gone in interesting directions, had Turtledove chosen to format the book differently and develop the characters with more care.  I still really like the idea of alternate history, and I still really like the island of Atlantis that Turtledove created, but I can't help but think that I'd rather read 440 pages of the giant birds that run around Atlantis, instead of bothering with the awful humans.  I guess I'll stick with Eric Flint for my alternate history reading.

2/5 stars

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