Opening Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove

Opening AtlantisTurtledove's known for his 'alternate histories', a genre of novels in which the author explores what might happen if some fact was changed, such as a different party winning a particular war, or some technology never having been invented. Opening Atlantis takes this concept one step further, into something that might be called an 'alternate geography'.

This review is of the 2007 Roc hardcover edition, from which I remember no editorial mistakes.

Imagine if the tectonic movement of the earth was different, and what's become the United States was split in two, and that roughly everything east of the Mississippi River, from the Gulf of Mexico through Eastern Canada, became a separate continent, situated roughly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The fictitious continent's relative closeness would allow Europeans to stumble on and settle it somewhat earlier, and that's exactly what happens in this book. Relative isolation from the other continents allows evolution to take one of its unique turns, developing unique forms of flora and fauna there, and Turtledove supposes there are no indigenous people.

The first groups to settle the new land are fishermen. The coastal waters offer untouched fishing grounds, there's abundant free land, and easy hunting of creatures with no fear of man. The fishermen have the means to get to the new world, and if necessary back to the European continent, and- maybe most importantly of all- they stand to gain a large degree of independence from their countries of origin.

The book's broken up into three parts, the first circa 15th century, the second jumping ahead 100 years or so, and the third making another similar leap, into the mid 18th century.

The first part is the story of the discovery of the new land, and the establishment of the first settlements, by small groups of Mediterraneans and English, and their initial attempts at exploring their frontier.

The second concerns their descendants, the growing population (including a fair amount of immigrants), the stirring European governmental interest (and interference) in the new land, and (in one of the most fun turns in the book) a sort of "untamed wild west" for largely maritime communities. A large part of the fun of these 'alternate' books is discovering the twists and turns, and I don't want to give too much away.

In part three, colonialism is in full swing, and while the colonies maintain a separation from Europe that's familiar to most Americans, the different settlements on Atlantis- predominantly (and unsurprisingly) English, French and Spanish- find themselves increasingly caught up in the political affairs of their respective homelands, where we see themes that are- typically for this genre- simultaneously familiar to the reader and completely fictional.

It's a fun book. It's not very challenging and it doesn't take long to read, but it's interesting and entertaining. I would think that the latter two were the mission of the author, so he was successful. There's a sequel to this book called The United States of Atlantis, which I haven't read. From the summary of the sequel, it appears to pick up with the main character of the third part of this book, so it doesn't make as large a leap in time as the parts in the first book do, and it also seems the door's been left open for a third book.

My only criticisms of this book- and they're minor- might be that Turtledove seems sometimes to be writing to the lowest common denominator. He tends to repeat himself somewhat, as if trying to make sure certain points don't get lost. Those points are usually pretty well made in the first place, and basically familiar anyway, so the time spent repeating them seems unnecessary. Another criticism is the length of the book. I'd enjoy this type of thing more if the characters were more deeply developed, but the format the author employs, splitting one book into three sections separated by multiple generations, effectively eliminates that possibility in the space provided. If each of these three parts had been a separate book, it would have allowed for more character development in each of the time periods; the peripheral characters included could be more fully realized, and that's always a good thing in my book (pun intended). Sometimes peripheral characters seem only to provide a means to developing the central ones, but I often find myself more interested in them than the authors probably intend. Having said all that, the existence of the second book in the series, picking up the story with the main character from this book's third part, and seeming to focus on that, changes my perspective on this book a bit. Were the two books combined in one volume, it might seem as though the first two parts of (what was) the first book were an involved background for the main character of Opening Atlantis's third act, and for the other main character of the first book: Atlantis itself.

Definitely plan to get my hands on the second book.

Cover of the Roc edition:

Slightly clearer view of the map:

More info and reviews at amazon.com

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