Book Review: “After the Fall” by Harry Turtledove

So picture this. A college kid working on their degree in creative writing downtown Chicago and needing to find “literary things” to journal about in the midst of Border’s mass closings —To which one of my professors crowed “Ding dong the witch is dead”— and finding a book only a dollar with a uniformed soldier on the back of a unicorn. Of course the college kid would buy it. It’s a journaling gold mine. That is if it’s managed to  be read for school.

I didn’t. It was 600 pages. It sat on my shelf through all my dorm rooms, moved with me to my Aunt’s house and across the seas to South Korea. From an old apartment in the mountainous countryside to my newer apartment in the city. It always fell to the bottom of my reading pile. I always put off reading it. There was always something shinier and shorter to read that fell into my hands first. But that spark of amusement at it’s cover that had lured me to buy it so long ago now never let me part with it.

However when I started compiling my books to decide what was going home with me and what was finding a new home I took a closer look at the book. I took in the man’s grey uniform, his unsmiling face, and his outstretched right arm in what could be construed as a forward call to battle, or a racist nazi salute.

This made me nervous to read it. I got it originally because I love fantasy and I wanted to read something light and fun about some army befriending unicorns and fighting fantasy battles. Plus at the time the beloved fantasy monster seemed to be unicorns.  I didn’t want to read about nazis and unicorns. Those are two things that shouldn’t go together.

But I’d carried the book around for so long and there were quotes all over it with things like “National Best Seller” and “Hugo Award-winning Author” and all this praise. And who knew, I hadn’t actually read what the plot was, maybe I was wrong.

But I wasn’t. The novel stars captain Hasso Pemsel a nazi during World War II facing a loosing battle against Russia in the middle of a museum. He doesn’t want to die but realizes he probably will so he starts taking in the destroyed museum and finds a stone, the Omphalos, a Greek stone considered to have magical properties and was “a joining between this world and others”.  Facing eventual death, Hasso Pemel sits on the stone like an egg and disappears into another world while the men he left behind perished.

Let’s get into something real quick. I don’t like war stories. I don’t like stories that are bogged down in the mechanics of real life war. I don’t enjoy reading about who used what type of gun when or how many bullets exist in a specific type of gun and how quickly it could kill the people around. I don’t mind historical fiction, but war historical fiction which is bogged down in details just to prove the author knew the details to win over history buffs just isn’t my jam. And neither was what happened within the first twelve pages aka the cliche damsel in distress but made of “Real Man daydreams“. (sarcasm here if you didn’t notice)

Hasso Pemsel lands into a new world set far back by modern conveniences then our world (or his during World War II) and immediately there’s a tall beautiful blonde haired blue eyed woman running for her life from non-tall non-blonde non-blue eyed men. So what does Hasso Pemsel do? He fires his Schmeisser and kills them all before they realize what’s going on. And the blonde lady? Rips off her clothes and offers herself to him. TWELVE. PAGES. IN.

I nearly dumped the book in the trash right then and there. But I promised myself I’d finish the book so I trudged on. The lady’s name was Velona and she held within herself a goddess on Earth that her people, all tall blonde and blue eyed people called the Lenelli, worshiped and who could control magic. She was powerful and strong and intimidating. But really really liked having sex with Hasso Pemsel. It was pretty much all she did in the book. Be scary possessive of him not looking at anyone else, having sex with him and just being as stunning as any dude would imagine a goddess to be. Oh, occasionally she’d fight or be in battle. But mostly she was a Smurfette. The only girl in the story allowed in all the boys club spaces.

Velona slowly taught Hasso Pemsel their language and also summoned a wizard to check him out. The Lenelli wizard rode on a unicorn. Yay wizards and unicorns right? Nope. Barely ever are the unicorns mentioned throughout the book. It was a huge let down. The wizard ends up being highly sadistic to the Grenye.

The Grenye are the locals, the Lenelli traveled across the sea and decided the land was theirs by their goddess’s (Velona’s) given right. The Lenelli could do magic or at least had the ability to try while the Grenye were “mind blind” aka too primitive and stupid to even try to do magic.

And! Hasso Pemsel gets tested by the wizard and has high magical abilities. Of course. 

Great, a nazi with special magical abilities sleeping with a racist goddess. Excuse me while I try and scrub my brain. So you’d expect the next step would be for someone cool to teach him magic, right? Like maybe through the magic he’ll learn that the Grenyeare people too and he’ll use his powers to show the Lenelli the light and they’ll all live in harmony and he’ll realize he was a terrible person on Earth and become a magical monk and try and devote his life to helping all living things. Nah. Instead he swears himself to the king of the Lenelli to help fight their cause to defeat the last hold out of Grenye people so they can finally rule everything. Because of course. What does anyone do when they end up in a new world? Immediately swear fidelity to the first king they meet before even learning who the enemy is or why they’re at war. He probably could’ve just coasted by as the Goddess’s lover, but soldier can’t stop soldiering and after magically escaping a war he was sure to die in he immediately throws himself head first into the first available war. Idiot.

Every where he goes among the Lenelli he battles the biggest toughest Lenelli he can. Then he tries to win everyone over with his “futuristic knowledge of war strategy” because they don’t know anything about security, spies, or even toilets and public sanitation. How on Earth are the even winning the battles they have won? So he starts poking and prodding at things trying to figure out how he can improve the Lenelli’s armies so they can win against the Grenye. Yet he’s considered soft because he won’t join the wizard in torturing the Grenye’s unless it’s absolutely necessary and is polite to them.

And nearly every other paragraph is his mind wandering back to his past and how horrible it was to battle Russia and for him to nod at the things the Lenelli say and do and go “ah yes, we felt the same way until the Russians kicked our butts.” Which is fine from time to time but he’s literally in the middle of conversations or at war and then just goes off day dreaming about the past and it gets tedious. I’m sure it makes up at least a couple hundred pages of just him reminiscing about his hatred towards anyone unlike him and comparing what’s going on to his own life experiences.

He joins the Lenelli in their battles, helps them kill many Grenye and create strategies of better ways to win with that sort of outsider “this doesn’t effect me, I can see clearly because I’m not a Lenelli even though I look like one” attitude. Eventually he looses and gets captured by the Grenye and things start to change. Finally. But really nearly 300 pages of him just going with the flow because the Lenelli are blond and blue eyed and tall was annoying. I’m sure it has some interesting insight or might be interesting to people who are war buffs and want a little fantasy mixed in. But really this type of book isn’t for me. And I knew that almost immediately when I started reading. Between the main character “hero” of the story being a literal Nazi, to the cliche Aryan damsel in distress (oh but she’s actually a super tough goddess!) that he nearly constantly is having sex with or upset that she’s doing her job which for some reason requires her to have sex with the king, to the racism throughout the book to even the constant reminiscing drove me nuts.

I think this is probably the first time I’ve ever read a book where a “hero” gets sent to another world and doesn’t make any effort to go home, or understand how it happened. And I don’t know if that lack of conflict or desire to return home or figure that out made the whole thing worse.

I guess I’ve learned my lesson about buying a book by based off its cover. To me this was just absolutely awful and boringly repetitive and a huge waste of my time. I’m kind of glad college me never bothered.

Have you ever bought a book by it’s cover? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not?


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