S.M. Stirling
Marching Through Georgia (1988)
Reviewed: 1997-05-26

I'm generally not fond of alternate histories. The what if? approach is crucial to SF, but history is past, time gone by, and immutable. It is also a very complex chaotic system, where the results of any hypothetical change are far beyond our power to predict. Thus, by necessity, any alternate history is entirely arbitrary, not an exercise in rational speculation but merely idle rambling on the author's part.

Stirling takes a good start by not adding yet another rehash to the interminable flood of books based on reversed outcomes of World War II or the U.S. Civil War. The point of divergence from our history line is at the time of the American Revolution, when a British fleet captures the Dutch colony at Capetown, and following American independence the British loyalists are offered transport and land grants at this Crown Colony of Drakia, so named in honor of Sir Francis Drake. Over the course of the next one and a half centuries the Draka, reinforced by mostly Central and North European immigrants, Confederate refugees from the American Civil War, and European intellectuals and malcontents like Friedrich Nietzsche, embark on a conquest without precedence, subjugating all of Africa, and eventually spilling into Asia Minor, the Balkans, and parts of Asia.

Most of the novel is set in April 1942, at the height of WWII, when the Draka take on Nazi Germany which has just crushed the Soviet Union. The action concentrates on a small detachment of Draka paratroopers who capture "Village One", a hamlet high on a pass through the Caucasus between Draka-held Armenia and German-held Georgia, choke point for a strategic highway through the mountain range. Facing certain death, the young commander Eric von Shrakenberg must hold the position against overwhelming enemy forces. What follows is a journey into the mind and life of the young Draka and the hell of war.

The Draka are high candidates for the most abominable people ever to mar the face of Earth. Caught in a constant war of expansion, they subjugate people after people in order to stabilize and fuel their slave-based economy. A thin aristocracy of Draka rules in absolutism over a large population of "serfs", effectively slaves. Power is the epitome of the Draka. They wield it, they exude it. Repression is their tool. Conquered populations are reduced to serfdom, resistance is crushed with inhuman effectivity by means of genocide. Contrary to the Nazis in their wishful dreams, the Draka are superhuman, or close to. Their atrocities dwarf those of Hitler and Stalin. This is not the work of solitary madmen, but a whole society with iron determination, utterly ruthless, frighteningly rational, and bound to succeed.

Much of the novel is seen through the eyes of the Draka, making for a a very fascinating and frightening read. It is a very intensely written tale of war, and the author gives substance to the phrase "war is hell". People keep dying in sufficiently graphic and sickening detail to drive this point home. Whatever objections readers may raise against Marching Through Georgia, accusing Stirling of glorifying war would be absurd. A 40-page appendix supplies a timeline and background figures and facts on the Domination of the Draka.

A minor point: why can't authors who throw in phrases in a language they don't know ask somebody who does to check? Stirling manages to misspell nearly every German word or phrase, and there's an expression or two that doesn't even remotely resemble German. The Russian looks suspicious, too.

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