The War that Came Early: Last Orders

Written by Harry Turtledove
Review by Ann Chamberlin

Turtledove, the king of alternate history, clarifies on his website that Last Orders is the sixth thick tome in a series where “World War II began about a year earlier than in our own timeline and none of the nations involved were as prepared for the war.” I had read none of the previous titles and hadn’t even read this premise until I finished the blurbless ARC for review.

Last Orders follows the lives of people on the varied fronts of a world war: A Japanese soldier on Midway Island preparing biological weapons to drop on Hawaii. A woman on the U.S. home front struggling through a divorce. An Azeri and an Armenian, ancient foes, who find themselves in the same cockpit of a Soviet plane, trying to make peace with each other as new “Soviet men.” Hemingway-esque fighters from the U.S. and German-swallowed Czechoslovakia fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. A Jewish family in the German town of Münster, still wearing yellow stars and not rounded up for Dachau yet – although that horror is sometimes mentioned as a possibility – is on the ground to watch when their fellow citizens rise up against the Reich. These are just the most memorable interwoven threads. Jews are prominent on several of these fronts, hiding out in military positions they had in the First World War.

I had no trouble becoming immediately engrossed in each of the vignettes. Gunnery details may not be my forte, but Turtledove makes them important through the eyes of well-drawn characters. It’s important to them, it becomes important to me. I especially enjoyed excurses into the obscene Russian slang mat and the point where our Armenian airman hits upon quantum mechanics with his own version of Schrödinger’s cat: Is this war or is this peace? We don’t know until we unpack it.