Opening Atlantis is Harry Turtledove’s latest work of alternate history; the book jacket promises that this is the first book in a trilogy, and the author has already written at least two independent stories in the same universe, so we can expect a somewhat detailed exploration of this particular terrain. For those unfamiliar with the genre, “alternate history” is a type of either science fiction or fantasy where historical events turned out differently. The most common (if not stereotypical) examples are works where Nazi Germany won World War II, or the Confederacy won the American Civil War, but the need for novelty has encouraged authors to branch out to all sorts of plausible, implausible, and frankly impossible scenarios*.
Harry Turtledove is widely regarded to be one of the best, if not the best, in this field; he has explored most of the popular themes in this genre and has probably created a few of his own. In the Atlantis series he has chosen as his divergence point either the independent formation of a small continent in the mid-Atlantic, or the breakup of the existing North American tectonic plate to create one (the cover suggests the latter). The first English explorers of the island – the first discoverers being Basque fishermen in the mid-15th century who had traded the knowledge of its existence – called it “Atlantis,” and immediately began independently settling there, as did French and Spanish fishermen. The general narrative traces the fortunes of several members of the Radcliffe family, who are descendants of the head of the original English settler, over the next three centuries, in three separate vignettes.
The geopolitics are the second interesting part of the book. Atlantis is sufficiently close that oceangoing vessels can stumble upon it; and they first do so in the 1450s, which means that the first exploration and settling is taking place during the English War of the Roses. The difference that results can be seen three centuries later, when the inhabitants of Atlantis are routinely described as “settlers,” not “colonists” – which implies that English Atlantis at least was not involved in British mercantilism. English Atlantis is, in fact, notable for its lack of what would be considered “proto-American” influences: there are no equivalents of the Puritans or Quakers, no indication that an equivalent of Virginia’s House of Burgesses was ever created** – and, of course, no Indian population. English Atlantis is instead a collection of steadily-growing settlements that rely on trade and are close enough to their parent country to prevent too much cultural drift… but far enough away to make administering them problematical (something made clear in each vignette). As the first book ends with the equivalent of the French and Indian Wars just ending, and the next book is called The United States of Atlantis, presumably Turtledove will be exploring an alternative American Revolution.
The book itself is quite readable: each vignette is based around a military conflict, and the author has his usual eye for appropriate detail and ear for authentic historical attitudes. Turtledove has been generally unwilling to warp his characters to the point where they are 21st century Americans in funny clothes, and keeps to that tradition here: the viewpoint characters judge themselves by their standards, not ours. This can be uncomfortable for the reader, but makes for a more internally consistent novel. If the book has a weakness, it’s in the lack of maps: the action can be a little difficult to follow without them. This will probably be resolved by the time the next book comes out. There are some language issues (mostly racial epithets made by the uncouth) and a certain amount of (not described) sex, so you probably don’t want your bright twelve year old to read it, but a high school junior shouldn’t have any problems with it. It’s not a bad book for starting out in alternate history, either, although Ruled Britannia (Shakespeare writing his plays in an England conquered by the Armada) may be more of interest to someone new to this genre. Turtledove enthusiasts have, of course, already purchased it, but if you haven’t, go ahead.
*Which is not to say, “unreadable:” while it is of course impossible for magic to suddenly work in medieval Europe, or for a time traveler to go back in time to save the Italian Goths from Belisarius, neither kept Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy series or L Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall from being excellent examples of the genre.
**Whether any of these groups exist on the North American continent (called “Terranova” in this setting) is not explored in this book.