The guns of the south
(Harry Turtledove, 1992)

As I like alternate history stories and have a rather irrational interest in the American Civil War, I'm naturally drawn to novels such as this one, in which time-travellers from the future appear in January 1864, offering the Confederacy a hundred thousand AK-47 assault rifles and plentiful ammunition, with which to defend their severely battered nation from the ongoing US invasion.

This is not a simple case of neo-Confederate wishful thinking. The Californian author is a historian who takes a relatively balanced interest in what might happen in this situation.

The story is mainly about the consequences of a Confederate victory, in both political and personal terms. Only a couple of sections of the book describe combat, and they manage to do it quite well without wallowing in gore.

The good things to be found here include the interesting and quite plausible alternate history; the plausible dramatization of the southern states in the 1860s; and the enjoyable anachronisms introduced by the visitors from the future.

The main faults of the book are in characterization and political correctness. Most of the characters, with some exceptions, seem a bit too good-natured to be entirely credible. Perhaps the most balanced character in the book is Nathan Bedford Forrest. I doubt that Turtledove's interpretation gets close to the man as he really was, but at least he's interestingly balanced between good and bad.

More seriously, Turtledove seems determined to make moral points that don't need making (Slavery Is Bad; Black People Are People Too), and he makes them in an irritatingly obvious and unsubtle manner. Perhaps, setting out to write such a book, he felt obliged to defend himself in advance against anticipated criticisms; but the result is that his story is too politically correct for its own good.

Despite these faults, I reckon that any ACW devotee will be fascinated by the way the book brings to life its alternate version of history. I've reread it repeatedly.

Of course there are plenty of other alternate-ACW novels (some by the same author), but I think this is the best one I've come across so far, with the possible exception of Ward Moore's Bring the jubilee (1953), which is a very different kind of book.

Written in September 2008, modified in October