I've been interested in alternate reality and alternate history for awhile now. It started with TV shows like Star Trek, and Justice League, who gave the concept a shot every now and then, then comics (I own a fair few of Marvel's 'What If...?' series and have checked out more than a few of DC's Elseworlds books) and now I've finally crossed into books. I had done some research on the subject on wikipedia to see where I should start, and with all the titles and the nickname, Master of Alternate History, Harry Turtledove seemed like a good place to kick off.
I found my copy of 'In the Balance' in spring break of this year and just finished it yesterday. It was an easy enough read, and I will credit Turtledove with this, he doesn't treat you like an idiot when it comes to WWII history, nor does he go about instantly assuming you know everything there is to know. To me, as a sometimes interested but not what you would call a conisseur of war, this came as a relief.
Coincidentally, before reading this, I had just finished Harry Harrison's 'West of Eden' (not to be mistaken with Steinbeck's 'East of Eden', let me assure you), another what if story featuring what would have happened had the meteor that alledgedly finished off the dinosaurs never happened. The world, after millions of years, is populated by the descendants of the lizards, with humans existing as a very small minority in North America. You're probably asking what this has to do with Turtledove's book, so I'll answer: the dino-descendants, called the Yilane, bear a striking resemblance in manner and appearance to this book's alien invaders, The Race (or The Lizards as we humans call them). This was quite noticeable, and for all I know Turtledove might have read Harrison's book himself, but regardless the former does a better job. Harrison's Yilane are, ironically, too alien, too different for the reader to really understand and sympathize with them, while Turtledove's Race seem much more human, easier to see where they're coming from, and for little bits here and there, you're almost hoping that they win.
Anyway, I'm getting off track. For anyone who hasn't bothered to read the synopsis above for this story, I'll go ahead. Basically, about the middle of WWII, just about the time that the Nazis had opened the unfortunately well known Auschwitz, Earth is attacked by The Race, wanting to add our planet to their growing Empire. This results in many unlikely alliances to come, and we can't help but wonder when it's all over, will humanity ever look at itself the same way again?
It's a very interesting concept, and Turtledove went about it the right way, instead of one long, one-person POV, he split up each chapter between multiple viewpoints around and even off the planet. We get accounts from America, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, and even the Race's fleetship; by all accounts that should make this book more enjoyable, more three-dimensional, and it does...for ahwile.
Unfortunately, like any book written with alternating perspectives, you get to like some moreso than others, and when that happens, it gets hard to push through the latter.
Also, one of Turtledove's failings in this book, one I didn't even notice until about three quarters through it, was that he tends to repeat himself alot in the thoughts of his characters. For instance, the reason the Race has so much trouble conquering us, is that they sent a probe to investigate our activity 1600 years ago, when we were still sword and arrow-wielding warriors, and since the Race (along with the other race's they've conquered) evolve and change very slowly, they couldn't foresee our bringing about firearms and missiles in that time. They come to Earth prepared for surrender in a matter of days, but then end up with almost a year gone wondering if they're even going to win at all. This fact, although intriguing (and more than a little funny from our perspective) is repeated and reused by the Race's superiors over and over and over so many times, you wish they had just stayed Home in the first place.
Now realistically, I know humans repeat themselves a lot (it's how we remember things) and I would imagine that the Race does this even more than we do, but to hear these things repeated again and again makes me sigh just thinking about it. And this was just an example too, Turtledove repeats many more thoughts and phrases through this book, which makes you wonder if he's a little lacking in vocabulary sometimes.
And the war doesn't end here, there are three more books in the Worldwar series, all about us versus the Race, and even a three book follow-up series about humanity after the war. I myself am not a series man, one series ruined them all for me when I was twelve and I've had trouble accepting them ever since. If 'In the Balance' had finished off the Race war in this book and then spent a few more showing how and if the war would continue to go afterwards, I might feel differently, but it doesn't; the war, although looking a little bit better for the home team, goes on, it's far from over, and I'm not about to spend good time and money on the other three books.
To sum up: If you are interested in alternate history, and you don't mind ongoing series and a bit of monotony, then I say go ahead, you'll probably enjoy this book more than I did. If you are interested in alternate history but you want the conecpt and story in one book, and for it to stay fresh, try something else; it might ruin the whole Alternate History genre for you.
Speaking of which, one more plus I will add: I didn't know before seeing the back cover of this book that Alternate History was actually a section in the library. Good for them.