In Days of Infamy, Harry Turtledove presented an alternate World War II where the Japanese followed the Pearl Harbor attack with an invasion. While the attack was good, the rest of the book bored me to tears. Now, Turtledove completes the series with End of the Beginning, and surprisingly, does an effective job of it. There are still massive problems with it, but they aren't the same as his usual ones. In fact, the book is quite gripping, the scenes that are normally plodding actually have a point, and we almost care for the characters.
Believe it or not, I found End of the Beginning almost riveting, and I was able to overlook the usual Turtledove foibles: the endless repetition of character details, not to mention the repetition of plot points. I was going to scream if I heard one more time how new pilot Joe Crosetti is uncomfortable letting the landing guy on the carrier be in charge of landing his plane, rather than landing himself, for example. These kinds of things are forever in Turtledove's repertoire and will never leave. However, usually these points drag the book to a halt because many of the scenes don't advance the plot much. This time, they do. Not great strides, of course, but it's clear at the end of each scene why Turtledove included them. The events that Turtledove puts his characters through are actually interesting for once, rather than just having the overarching plot get your attention (the main reason I wade through his writing).
I mostly cared about the characters, watching the PoWs waste away, horrified by what Jane Armitage is put through. In fact, I cared enough that it affected me when some of them died. This being the final book (I would assume, anyway, from the way he ends it), he's free to do what he wants with characters we will never see again. Thus, none of them are immune from dying. To watch what these characters go through, and then to watch them die, is much more affecting after two books in this series than it was in almost 6 books of his Great War series. Even the Japanese characters are fascinating, almost three-dimensional men (and all of the Japanese are men, of course). Their personalities are wonderfully drawn, and even within the Japanese military system, they are quite different. One of them even starts an affair with an important woman on the island, which surprised me to no end.
However, the Japanese characters bring me to one huge fault with the book, which is a problem in the whole series but is rammed home in this one. The scenes from the civilian and PoW points of view showcase the brutality of the Japanese occupation. They treat their prisoners worse than they would treat the scum on the bottom of their shoes. Prisoners are nothing to them, because they are so dishonored. Even the civilians, with the exception of a couple of random encounters with the occupiers, are treated horribly. However, when we see the main Japanese characters, they are normal human characters that we can almost sympathize with. They are fairly deep, they are interesting to read about (in fact, they are the most interesting characters in the book). The problem is that there is no link between these two portrayals at all. Barely a hint. I think they mention being taken prisoner as a dishonor, but that's it. There's none of the casual brutality. There's no mistreatment of any of the locals. The one main "character" who represents the horrible way the Japanese acted is not a viewpoint character at all. In fact, he's almost looked down upon by the main characters who see him. They don't even interact with him!
This indicates to me a case of Turtledove trying to play both sides at the same time. Since he constantly goes on about callousness being part of the Japanese military mentality, there should be at least some little bit of that in the Japanese military characters. It almost seems like he's afraid to give any of his viewpoint characters these kinds of flaws, because he doesn't want us to lose our identification with them (or our interest level, anyway). He seems to forget that he's turned one of his main viewpoint characters in the Great War books into a representation of the man in charge of instituting the Holocaust. I think we can live with a bit of brutality in our Japanese viewpoint characters. The worst thing they do, however, is slap a few of their underlings. Most of the time, it's the lower-ranked characters who are getting slapped, not the important ones doing the slapping.
Finally, I'd like to point out one of Turtledove's usual faults that actually ends up being a strength (intentionally or not). I have long been a critic of his attempt to write sex scenes, most of them making me feel icky as a reader. In End of the Beginning, however, he uses that difficulty to great effect. Whenever any of the romances have a sex scene, he generally cuts away or just proclaims it finished and they move on from there. He doesn't go into detail. In the Comfort Women sequences, however, he does go into detail. Of course, this detail makes the reader feel uncomfortable, but it's his clumsiness in doing so that adds even more to the effect, making it seem even worse. At the end of the book, you can certainly understand the women's reactions to those who tormented them like this, as you almost share that feeling. And all because Turtledove can't write a sex scene to save his life.
End of the Beginning is a fitting conclusion to this series. It almost made reading the first book worth while. If you like alternate World War II stories, this one is actually pretty good.