The Big Switch: The War That Came Early
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44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
This is the third book in a series which speculates about what might have happened if World War II had started in 1938 after the Munich peace talks failed.

The books in the series to date are:

1) "Hitler's War"

2) "West and East (War That Came Early)"

3) This book, "The War that came early: the Big Switch"

"The War that came early" is yet another alternative version of World War II from Harry Turtledove. It is quite astonishing that he can still find new perspectives from which to write about that war, but he does.

In the opening paragraphs of the first book Turtledove made two changes in real history, and the first two volumes in the series work from there. First, in 1936 General Jose Sanjuro wasn't killed in a plane crash and consequently Sanjuro rather than Franco becomes leader of the Nationalist side in the Spanish civil war. Secondly, during the Munich negotiations, Henlein (leader of the Sudeten Germans) was assassinated, giving Hitler an excuse to press for even more punitive terms against Czechoslovakia.

In this history Chamberlain and Daladier finally recognised that Hitler was determined on war, and suspected that he had actually ordered Henlein's murder himself. They found the spine to tell Hitler that if he invaded Czechoslovakia Britain and France would honour their obligations to the Czechs. Hitler did order the invasion of Czechoslovakia on the spot, and the war started a year earlier than in real history.

There was (and is) a commonly held view, both at the time of Munich and subsequently, that the democracies were not ready for war in 1938 while Germany was. When I was a boy my father summarised this view in seven words after I asked him why Chamberlain did not stand up to Hitler at Munich: he answered "We would have lost the war then."

This series is entertainment rather than a serious academic study, but the first two books tried to address the question of whether that view is right, by projecting through what might have happened, taking account of the fact that the lineup of countries on each side was not identical, how far rearmament had actually gone on each side, and of the military and naval kit which would have been available to the combatants from 1938.

Both Britain and Germany would have been forced to make more use of armoured vehicles armed only with machine guns (Bren carriers and the Panzer I), or very light tanks such as the Panzer II: biplane fighters and bombers would have been used much more by all sides.

In real history, German war plans in 1938 for war against France were based on a slightly updated version of the Schlieffen plan which had been tried and failed in 1914. However, at the start of the war a copy of those plans fell into British hands. Knowing this, the Germans changed their strategy to the "Manstein Plan" for a punch through the Ardennes, and this was the strategy which succeeded brilliantly and knocked France out of the war in 1940. In "Hitler's war" the Schlieffen plan is tried again with pretty much the results which most military historians think would have resulted if the Germans had been daft enough to stick with it.

By the start of this book it the Germans have clearly failed to secure the rapid victory against France which they actually achieved in 1940, and are slowly and painfully being driven back, though their armies are well inside French territory: meanwhile in the East the Germans and Poles are gradually driving the Russians back.

At this point Turtledove posits a further "What if" change in events from the real World War II - what if there was a change around in the pattern of alliances?

Now if you were to ask me whether such an event was remotely likely I would have to say definately not, particularly in the timeline depicted in this series. It is hardly likely that the same people who showed more spine and a greater willingness to stand up to Hitler in the first book in this series than they did in reality, would then diverge from historical events in quite the opposite direction as they do in this book. Having said that, there was an element within certain countries, small minority though they were, who argued for the course of action which those countries take in this book. Which makes this a legitimate "what if" to ask, particularly if you don't pretend that it would be a given: and Turtledove does go out of his way to make clear that there would also have been people who strongly opposed that course of action, inferring that it could not have happened without the death of one particularly important historical figure.

As usual for a Harry Turtledove book, the war is seen through the eyes of a large number of fictional viewpoint characters, one or more from each of the countries involved. This time these include an American woman caught in Prague by the outbreak of war who at the start of the third book is still trying to get home, a Jewish family in Munster, a German panzer wireless operator, stuka pilot, and U-Boat skipper, British and Japanese sergeants, a Czech corporal who is now fighting with the free Czech forces in France, etc.

The brother of the Jewish girl viewpoint character is hiding from the Nazis by having enlisted in the Wehrmacht under a false name, and in the second and third books Turtledove keeps us guessing about whether he is the driver of the Panzer II in which one of the Wehrmacht viewpoint characters is radio operator. Major historical figures like Hitler and Churchill get mentions as they impact on the lives of the viewpoint characters.

Turtledove's homework on the tactical capabilities of equipment available to the armed forces of all sides between 1938 and 1940 is mostly pretty good, though he is open to challenge on how representative his battle scenes are in a small number of cases. The main one in this book, continuing a storyline from the second volume, concerns the effectiveness of cannon-armed ground attack aircraft.

Both the Germans and Allies historically deployed ground-attack aircraft designed to destroy tanks. The Germans really did have a "Panzerbuster" variant of the Stuka armed with 37mm guns JU87-G, similar to the aircraft flown by a viewpoint character in this book, and other anti-tank aircraft such as the Henschel HS129: the RAF deployed a Hurricane variant with 40mm anti-tank cannons, and later in the war used rocket-firing Typhoons.

But the main impact of such aircraft on enemy armour, whether they carried with airborne anti-tank guns or anti-tank rockets, was to slow the enemy down and kill unarmoured targets: they never managed to kill large numbers of tanks.

Without the precision guidance systems developed later in the 20th century, or the ability to throw vast numbes of shells as the Gatling cannon on a modern A10 Warthog aircraft can, it was simply not possible to get the accuracy with air-to-surface weapons which was needed for a decent chance of destroying an armoured, moving target. However, the psychological impact of being attacked from the air was considerable even for armoured units, and WWII air attack could and did cause significant casualties to unarmoured targets like infantry, artillery, and supply units.

One famous incident where witnesses from both sides agree that air attack stopped an armoured assault cold took place at Mortain in 1944. Several squadrons of RAF Typhoons and USAF P47s really did halt a major German thrust, but their claim to have destroyed 200 enemy tanks was wrong by a factor of about twenty.

A military survey of the Mortain battlefield shortly afterwards found the wreckage of only 46 knocked-out German tanks and other AFVs, of which no more than NINE had damage consistent with having been hit by the weapons used by the Allied fighter-bombers: another seven tanks had been abandoned intact. The British investigators found that the vast majority of wrecked AFVs had damage more consistent with hits from the weapons used by the American ground troops they were facing.

This absolutely does NOT mean that the air attack had no effect: all participants on both sides agreed that it had been decisive. Interviews with captured prisoners confirmed that some inexperienced panzer crews had bailed out when they came under heavy air attack. And for every tank knocked out by air attack, several support vehicles such as ammunition wagons and fuel tankers were indeed destroyed from the air.

The point is that a successful, massive air strike had its main impact through a dramatic effect on morale, causing armoured and unarmoured german units to take cover, through killing significant numbers of the infantry, artillery and support units essential to the armoured advance, and persuading nearly as many green panzer crews to abandon their vehicles as were actually knocked out, rather than by killing large numbers of german tanks. Though to be fair to the fighting men on both sides, the Typhoons and P47s did kill enough AFVs to make the action of panzer crews in taking cover quite rational and in no way cowardly!

The JU 87-G1, which was the real historical aircraft most closely corresponding to the Panzerbuster Stuka in this book, carried six rounds for each of its two 37mm anti-tank guns. It was exclusively deployed on the Eastern Front, apparently because the Western allies usually had air superiority and all Stuka variants were hopelessly vulnerable to Allied fighter planes. Most of its successes against Russian tanks were obtained by attacking Soviet tank columns from behind and penetrating their thinner rear armour. To be fair to Turtledove, this book does refer to the stuka's extreme vulnerability to fighters and to the pilot manouvering to hit Soviet tanks from behind.

However, the scenes in both "The war that came early: West and East" and this book, where an anti-tank stuka zips round above a battlefield swatting Allied or Russian tanks like flies, killing three or four targets per sortie without apparent regard to either ammunition constraints, or the difficulty of actually scoring a hit, are not very representative.

The argument over this is complicated because the viewpoint character in the book, stuka pilot Hans Rudel, appears to be based on a historical german pilot with the same name who was the most decorated german serviceman of the war, really did fly JU-87 G variants from Kursk onwards, and was credited by the Luftwaffe with knocking out a very large number of soviet tanks and other targets.

Ironically, in real history Rudel's luftwaffe bosses initially thought that he did not have the necessary skills to fly combat missions as a pilot, and did not allow him to do so until Operation Barbarossa in 1941, some years after his fictional counterpart was swatting tanks in this series of books.

Since only the winners have the opportunity to do the sort of after-action analysis which the allies conducted after Mortain, we will never know for certain whether Rudel really did destroy anything remotely like the number of soviet targets that he thought he had. However, both allied and german witnesses agree that USAF and RAF air power really was decisive both at Mortain and in many other places, while it is manifestly evident that Rudel and his fellow anti-tank stuka pilots failed to halt the Red Army at Kursk or subsequently. There is no evidence whatsoever that german air attacks were more effective than allied ones - if anything, the reverse is the case.

So even if Rudel really was as effective as he thought he was, and Turtledove presents him as being in this book, the average german stuka pilot clearly wasn't remotely that good - for which Brits, Americans and Russians can alike be very grateful!

Mind you, these scenes were told only from the Luftwaffe viewpoint, and perhaps like the allied pilots at Mortain the German pilot thinks he has killed more enemy tanks than he really has. Occasionally Turtledove gives both sides of the same battle: perhaps in a future book if Turtledove wants to restore perspective one of his soviet characters may be present when the panzerbuster stuka attacks, and report that when the pilot thinks he has killed several tanks, in fact he has damaged one and driven the rest into cover.

I've gone into some detail about the effectiveness of WWII air attack because this aspect of the book seemed a bit unrepresentative and annoyed me, but fortunately this is not typical of the quality of the techical and tactical analysis in "The big switch:" most of it is much better than that.

This is the fifth alternative version of World War II which Turtledove has written. He has previously done a series with aliens from Tau Ceti invading in 1942 (the "Worldwar" series which starts with Worldwar: In the Balance (New English library)). He's also done a parallel history following pretty much the real track, in a world where technology uses magic rather than engineering (known variously as the Darkness, Derlavi, or 'World at War' series) which starts with Into the Darkness. There is an alternative World War II in his massive ten volume history of a Confederate States of America which survives for nearly a century following a Rebel victory in the US Civil War, and in which the same roles as in the historical WWII are carried out by different people - this is the "Settling Accounts" quartet. Finally there is a pair of novels, "Days of Infamy" and "End of the Beginning" which explore the possibility that Japan might have backed up the air strikes on Pearl Harbour with a land invasion of Hawaii.

Having done so many alternative versions of World War II, you would think he would find it impossible to say anything new about them or maintain the reader's interest. There were some negative reviews of the first book - mostly along the lines of "good concept, poor execution" and I suspect that not all readers will enjoy this as much as I did. One minor weakness is that, ironically, the viewpoint characters in this series somehow do not seem quite as "real" to me as those in the fantasy WWII series set in a magic world often did.

Turtledove also has a bad habit of repeating the same information time after time, and there is some of that in this series, from how hard machine-gunners often found it to surrender, to how junior enlisted men were wise not to argue with noncoms.

But overall I enjoyed reading all three books in this series and can recommend them.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 20, 2011
Harry Turtledove's newest volume in his "War that Came Early" series picks up where his last book, The War That Came Early: West and East, left off with a war grinding on in the harsh winter of 1940. Both Germany and the Soviet Union find themselves facing two-front conflicts, and with the focus increasingly on the clash with each other, their leaders are willing to let go on the other front. For the Soviets, that means allowing Japanese triumphs in Siberia. For the Germans, however, a more radical move is attempted: convincing their opponents Britain and France to change sides and join the Nazis in their war against Communism. Yet as the prospects of an alliance grow increasingly likely, the question posed by Winston Churchill seems increasingly pertinent: can the proverbial lambs lie down with the Nazi lion, or are they just setting themselves up to be consumed in turn?

Longtime fans of Turtledove's alternate history novels will find much that is familiar within the pages of his latest book, as he describes the experiences of a cast of characters struggling to survive in a world where history takes a dramatic new turn. Yet the series does not measure up to his best efforts. The main flaw here seems to be one of characterization: unlike his Timeline-191 series, which offered a range of characters from different backgrounds and positions, nearly all of the characters in this series are enlisted men fighting in the war he described. This has the unfortunate effect of homogenizing the people and the action, as well as creating a similarity of perspective that limits his ability to offer exposition of the broader events that define alternate history. The problem is not without a solution - Turtledove has demonstrated in the past an ability to transition new characters into ongoing series - but he will need to do so soon or face squandering the effort he put into developing his latest alternate world.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2011
sorry, but as a longtime fan of Turtledove, I have come to rely on his insight into the machinations of humankind and his characters. whether relying on science fiction and fantasy like extraterrestrials and time travel, or simply taking a subtle change in history and exploring it to its logical conclusions, Turtledove made sense within the confines of his own writing.

Here he takes a dynamic (European battle for hegemony and the longstanding uneasiness felt by the UK and France about Germany's rise and rearmament), and suddenly throws it under the bus and adopts this Big Switch. Makes no sense ... for one, the French were invaded and would not have jumped into bed with Hitler, for another, if the premise of the book is that Chamberlain had a backbone and stood up to Hitler in 1938, why would he suddenly join sides with him for no reason? Finally, the notion that UK and France would opt to join the military campaign against Russia rather than just seek an armistice and liberation of the Northern and Western European occupied countries, seems wholly unreasonable and fails the basic test of Turtledove readers: is this believable within the world created by the author?

the answer, sadly, is no.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Harry Turtledove has proven time and again that he's a really great storyteller, especially when it comes to working with history. Though he's written straight historical novels like Fort Pillow and (as H N Turteltaub), the Hellenic Traders series, he's best known for writing alternate history novels which frequently expand into massive series.

The War that Came Early: The Big Switch, is the third in a series where World War II, well, comes early. For those not up on the series, it starts when France, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom stand up to Germany after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 rather than waiting until the invasion of Poland in 1939. The result is that the war begins before both sides are really ready.

This leads to a very different sort of war than what we're used to. Fascists and Republicans continue to fight in Spain, Germany faces off against the UK and France (which does not fall as it did in our world), while also invading the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway, Japan invades Siberia and lays siege to Vladivostok, and Poland allies with Germany against Russia, leaving Germany no place to build their planned extermination camps. Something that would be hard to do anyhow, since Poland isn't interested in killing off their Jews. And through it all the United States sides on the sidelines and waits...

As this book begins, it is 1940 and we get updated on the various characters from the previous books. These include an American civilian stuck in Stockholm, a British soldier on an island off Norway, a Russian pilot from the Caucasus, a Czech fighting in the French army, an American Jew fighting in Spain, a German panzer soldier, as Jewish woman living in Germany, an American Marine in Shanghai, a Japanese soldier in Siberia and others. Like any Turtledove book, there's no shortage of viewpoint characters.

Some of these characters and their stories are more interesting than others. My favorite thus far is Peggy, the American woman who just wants to get home after getting stuck in Europe far longer than she'd expected. Others, like the German panzer soldier and the Japanese soldier, are less interesting and I didn't care nearly as much for their stories.

And that's something of a failing for the series as a whole. While I didn't care about or for every character in the Worldwar or Timeline 191 series, I did at least find almost all of them interesting. It helped that, especially with the Timeline 191 series, I had quite a lot of time to get to know them, both in and out of combat. Even by the end of this book, which is, as I mentioned, third in the series, I don't feel that I know all the characters nearly as well as I should, though one that should make some readers happy is that we don't get nearly as much detail about the characters sex lives as we did with some of Turtledoves's other works (something I never had a problem with, but I understand why people don't much care for Mark Twain slash fiction).

On the other hand, Turtledove has done an excellent job of overcoming one of the serious problems with Timeline 191, and that's the predictability. In that series, we knew pretty much from the start of the Great War where things were going to go, and there wasn't a single really major surprise.

In this series, however, things aren't nearly so predictable, and the surprises are many, including the fate of one of England's most well-known politicians and the "big switch" that gets mentioned in the title.

Ultimately this book, and this series, are an interesting read with a good premise, and even if the characters aren't what I want them to be, I really do look forward to seeing what happens with them, even if I have to wait another year to do so.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2011
I got about what I was expecting from this book, or maybe less. The war progresses, and that's about it. We're still following the same several characters, who repeat themselves fairly often and who don't sound much different from each other in terms of slang and expressions even given their different national origins and languages. The book would have been better served if major political players were involved, as in his Worldwar series, instead of only ordinary people fighting or living at the homefront. Just not much intrigue or political/tactical effort put into this series. I've gone from buying his books to checking them out of the library, and now I'm wondering if I'm even going to bother finishing this series. Only read if you're a big Turtledove fan, and even then, I'm sorry to say, don't expect much.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2011
This book is not worth your time and money, exhibiting all of Turtledove's familiar weaknesses and none of his strengths. (Why have one character in a niche when you can have two? Why say something once when you can say it a dozen times? Why imply the obvious when you can spell it out in great detail?)

Fans like me put up with these things because of his genius for turning familiar historical characters and events inside out. In the past, he has often worked from unreal premises (time travel, alien invasion), but developed his story logically from there.

By contrast, The War That Came Early series has a fascinating and believable point of departure. But while the first two books are decent if pedestrian, this third instalment wrecks it. As other reviewers have argued in more detail, the "Big Switch" referred to in the title is simply not plausible. And once disbelief in the grand narrative can no longer be suspended, there is nothing about the characters, plot or style that entices further reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2012
I believe it was John Campbell who, when he was editor of "Astounding Stories", said that a science fiction author was entitled to one big lie. In his series "The War That Came Early", Harry Turtledove begins with a lie, specifically that the British and French didn't roll over and allow the Nazis to take over the Sudetenland when they demanded it from Czechoslovakia. So, the Germans begin World War II by invading Czechoslovakia instead of Poland.

That was for starters. Then, Spanish Marshal Sanjurjo does not die in a plane crash as he did in real life, thus extending the Spanish Civil War to, oh, the next time the Cubs win the World Series. Then, the Soviets get into a war with Poland instead of Finland before they get into a war with Germany. Then, after the Germans fail to crush the British and French with their blitzkrieg in the West, the British and French decide to change sides and go to war alongside the Germans against the Soviets.

Any one of those things would be plausible, and maybe several would. But all in the space of three or four years? I don't know. I think that stretches the premise a bit thin. Nevertheless, Turtledove is a good storyteller. He has believable characters and writes good dialogue. I suppose if you disallow Campbell's dictum and allow the author all the lies he wants, then this is a ripping yarn.

As for me, I feel a little conflicted about it. I'm starting to get a little fed up, but for now I'm willing to continue with it. I'll read the next book in the series when it comes out.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Harry Turtledove has become a 'hack'. In his early 'histories' the changes of the timeline were much more massive and sudden (see Drako), now we are at a point where he moves the war up a few years, gives sinister motives to Chamberlain (killing off Churchill) and makes Rudolf Hess a hero. But much of the story is like watching a syndicated TV show that needs to wrap things up in one episode (or two at the most) with all our characters just a little older and hopefully wiser.

Turtledove is the master at this type of story (like SM Stirling or GRR Martin) where there are eight to ten characters who we follow, with one in each major area of the world. Each character gets about 50 pages per book, broken down into eight to ten, five page vignettes. I hope that this doesn't turn out like Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' which started out as projected five book series and was fifteen at his death and still had two books to go. This was originally planned as four and will be at least six per Turtledoves website.

We pick-up where we left off in late 1940, with the French and British facing the Germans across northern France, and the Germans and Poles facing off against the Russians in eastern Poland. In Asia the Japanese are fighting against the Russians for Vladivostok and against China expanding from Manchukuo.

For any history maven, most of this will sound familiar, with enough changes to make it interesting and keep you guessing what will come next. Based on the title of this book you could pretty well guess what the "Big Swing" was going to be, though some changes were enlightening. The next book is called the "Coup" and what that means has been hinted at, at the end of this book.

Pearl Harbor happens on January 12, 1941, but is much less destructive to the American Pacific Fleet and Turtledove has telegraphed that there will be major fighting in the Philippines and Indo-China. Since the US is only involved in the Pacific War, you would think that it will be a shorter war except that there will have to be an invasion of the 'Home Islands' which will be exceedingly bloody if Turtledove follows the scenarios that were written at the end of 'our' WW2. (Note: the A-Bomb wasn't ready until 1945 using all the great minds that had escaped from Europe, many of whom would have remained at home give the alternate history.) Turtledove has turned himself into the 'Law & Order' franchise of Alternate History.

Just another couple of weeks at the wordprocessor for Harry.

Zeb Kantrowitz
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VINE VOICEon March 9, 2012
The Big Switch
The War That Came Early 03
Harry Turtledove
Genre: Alternative History
Publisher: Del Rey
Trade Paperback
418 Pages
Publication Date: July 19th, 2011
ARC Trade Paperback Uncorrected Proof
ISBN-13: 978-0345491862

How does he do it? Harry Turtledove, the foremost alternate history writer in the world, maintains an instinctive ability to write grand, sweeping novels incorporating larger-than-life historic events such as World War II (albeit alternate and unconventional views of the same) while still managing to compress it into the emotions, daily events, and actions of the least, common man. Master storyteller Harry Turtledove begins this series with an interesting "what if" premise and follows it through to its logical conclusion. "What if U. K. Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, instead of placating Hitler, had defied him by not signing the Munich Agreement in 1938?"

No other author working in the field of speculative fiction today has such an accomplished grasp of narrating the all-encompassing alternate big picture while still retaining the ability to drill down to and explain all the fears, the uncommon bravery, and the irrational behavior of the common soldier, no matter what his nationality or which country he fights for. Mr. Turtledove entwines the alternate world-view with the human condition and continues to hold our attention throughout. And few, if any, can include so many characters in such an extensive, world-wide saga and still manage to draw them all back together. In fact, there are so many characters here that I found it hard to connect with some of them. While all were intriguing some of their stories were less interesting (and satisfying to me) than others, which may be the worst thing I can say about the book.

So, here's the thing, why I think The War That Came Early is an exceptional work of alternate fiction. If you are not extremely familiar with World War II history you'll be convinced that things happened exactly as Mr. Turtledove chronicles in The Big Switch. That's because the stories are stimulating, fascinating, and entirely credible works of alternate history which tend to show how minor changes in the action or inaction by prominent players (and sometimes totally improbable characters) can cause huge changes in historic events. Mr. Turtledove accomplishes this better than anyone else in the genre and tells a great story in the process.

Recommended for history buffs, military strategists, alternate historians, and fans of sprawling, blood-and-guts war fiction.

Review copy provided free as part of the Early Reader program.

4 stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

The War That Came Early by Harry Turtledove
1. Hitler's War (2009) 4 stars out of 5
2. West and East (2010) 4 stars out of 5
3. The Big Switch (2011) 4 stars out of 5
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In our own timeline, Prime Minister Chamberlain surrendered the Sudetenland, claimed "peace in our time" and was replaced by Winston Churchill when war came despite Chamberlain's appeasement. In his THE WAR THAT CAME EARLY series, author Harry Turtledove wonders what would have happened if Hitler had forced the war earlier.

In the earlier volumes in this series, Hitler's armies got bogged down in France. Without perfecting the blitzkreig in Poland, without the deployment of more modern panzers, Hitler simply could not complete the conquest he managed in our own timeline. Because he was already at war with the west, however, he didn't attack Poland--and Russia did. So Poland called on Germany to help it and Germany became involved in a two-front war, but a war with a Polish ally (and clearly a front that started farther east). Now, with Chamberlain still Prime Minister in Britain, Turtledove offers a startlingly different take on the Rudolf Hess incident. Suppose, rather than being arrested and imprissoned by Churchill, Hess and been greeted by Chamberlain. Suppose he persuaded France and Britain to join Hitler in a crusade against communism?

Turtledove's style is to tell history from the perspective of ordinary people--of privates, sergeants and civilians. Here, in THE BIG SWITCH, Turtledove gives us the perspective of a Czech sniper, Soviet and German bomber pilots, a British sergeant, a Jewish young woman in Germany, an International Brigade soldier in Spain (because the war came early, the Spanish civil war is ongoing, with French assistance to the Republic and a blocade of German and Italian assistance to the Nationalists helping hold back Nationalistic forces), a Panzer commander in Poland and a Japanese sergeant in Siberia (in this world, incidents between Japan and the Soviets led to war). Sometimes this approach works--we get to see the war from a personal perspective. Here, Turtledove pulls it off. The characters are often in places that matter, where we can see turning points in the battle. They're emotionally connected to the outcomes, which makes it better. (In contrast, I had serious problems with the earlier book in this series, EAST AND WEST).

In only one area did I find THE BIG SWITCH a bit hard to buy--specifically the switch itself. Would France and Britain really agree to end the war and throw in with their former allies? In France, especially, the left was extremely strong (the Popular Front won the 1936 elections). It might have agreed to peace with Germany, but I don't think Turtledove die enough to convince us that France would have actually switched from war against Germany to an outright alliance against the Soviet Union.

Although I had some problems, I found THE BIG SWITCH to be Turtledove's strongest alternate history offering in years. It's based on a fascinating historical twist (many politicians have argued for decades that Hitler could have been stopped easily if only the west had confronted him early in his expansionist days), and the character-based approach to alternate history works because he picks characters who are actually involved in the key activities of the day.
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