With Into the Darkness, the first novel of a new series, Harry Turtledove introduces the world of Derlevai, which was ravaged by a major war one generation ago. When the duke of a minor province dies, the kingdom of Algarve decides to reassert its claim to his lands, which were taken as part of the earlier cease-fire agreement. Not having learned from past experience, the rulers plunge Derlevai into a massive war.
Into the Darkness is clearly based on a mixture of the two World Wars, but Turtledove introduces a subtle element of magic to his blend. The magic primarily serves to replace technology: aircraft are dragons, tanks become behemoths, and submarines turn into leviathans. Although magic affects everyone's lives, it is as unnoticed as electricity or gasoline in our world, only noticeable in its absence.
The action is played out by a wide variety of characters representing the various kingdoms. In order to help differentiate his cast, Turtledove has helpfully provided them with names reminiscent of several terrestrial cultures. Forthwegian names tend to be Anglo-Saxon, Algarvians are Italian, and so on. These parallels, however, can only be carried so far, for the cultures and politics of these lands are not necessarily reflective of the names their citizens hold.
The military action in Into the Darkness is complex, which isn't helped by Turtledove's alternating viewpoints, but the general status of the war at any time is pretty easy to grasp.
Turtledove's characters, ranging from backcountry farmers to highborn ladies to scholars, allow him to examine the culture which his war is destroying.
Into the Darkness is a thoughtful and entertaining look at a clash of cultures and political ideologies. Rather than portray heroes and villains, Turtledove depicts his characters in realistic terms, giving all of them redeeming qualities to balance their faults. Despite being the first of a series, the action comes to a sensible conclusion even as it leaves themes and plots open for further elaboration.
Stephen Silver is a freelance book reviewer in Northbrook, Illinois.