Through Darkest Europe by Henry Turtledove

Through Darkest Europe is an Alternate Universe book with an interesting concept. It’s also a book that, in my opinion, felt about 200 pages longer than it actually was, and should have been 200 pages shorter to really shine.

The premise is that in this universe, the influential 13th century Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas posited that science and God are irreconcilable, while the influential 12th century Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali argued that they are. (In our world, their views were the opposite.) Thus, Christian Western Europe stagnates and remains “backward”, while the Muslim world’s science and art flourish and it becomes the main world power. The book is set roughly around our present day, as a terrorist group called the “Crusaders” are destabilising Italy. Khalid, a secular Muslim investigator from Maghreb, and his Jewish assistant Dawud are sent to Italy to help resolve the situation.

So, as this is a book published in the political climate of 2018, it can only really be viewed as social commentary on what’s going on in the world today. On the one hand, of course, commentary on ISIS, paralleled by the Crusaders; on the other hand, commentary on rising Islamophobia, paralleled by Khalid’s unthinking stereotypes and prejudices against Europeans. It’s a book that points out how dangerous and silly our unthinking stereotypes may be, a book that basically says, “There but for the grace of God go I”. And if it manages to get all of us who read it to consider the prejudices we hold a little harder, it’ll have done its job and I applaud its efforts.

However. As an actual book, I think it fails on several levels.

In terms of the social critique, for me it actually falls a little flat. Alternate Universes are very difficult to build comprehensively, and I know as a reader I’m maybe too picky and always wanna go, “But what about…” Seriously though, but what about the non-religious aspects of conflict? In our world, the rise of religious fanaticism in the Middle East and elsewhere can’t be fully explained without pointing out interference and destabilisation from other countries: through colonialism, through proxy struggles during the Cold War, etc.

In Through Darkest Europe, the non-religious aspects are handwaved as, “Oh, also Europe is poor.” Alright, sure, but has the Maghreb or Egypt been arming religious groups in order to oppose communism (does communism exist in this universe?) in the last century? Is climate change also contributing to resources vanishing and the region becoming poorer? Khalid and Dawud seem to have been genuinely sent to settle Italy down so that the Crusaders stop blowing things up in the “civilised” countries. Which… come on, in our world that has literally never been any country’s primary motivation ever. I think the idea is to have a book where Muslims are totally 100% the good guys (although not without the latent racism, sexism, etc. similar to that in Western Europe/America today), which I do get. But I also think reducing the commentary on what’s happening in the Middle East to an almost solely religious level makes the social critique feel kinda superficial.

Apart from the social critique level, I think the book is just kinda… boring. The problem is that everything is spelled out and repeated a lot. For example, Dawud makes a joke. Khalid knows him well enough to know he means it’s a joke, not something serious. Then Dawud makes another joke. Khalid knows him well enough to know… Etc. Also, we’re told that the airport has signs in Arabic, as it’s the international language. Thirty pages later we’re told some Italian person has a “musical accent” because he doesn’t speak Arabic, the international language, very often. In another fifteen pages, we’re told that if a Chinese person and an Irish person ever met, they’d speak Arabic, as it’s the international language. Etc. Because the social critique focuses almost exclusively on religion, we also get extremely similar discussions regarding secularism vs religion, but also we should respect people’s beliefs, but also respecting people’s beliefs is impossible when they don’t respect yours, but also what about secularism vs religion, over and over again. This is what I mean when I say it’d work better as a novella: if you trimmed off the repeated information and the literal spelling out of reactions, you’d be down ca. half the book, and for the better.

The plot is also kind of muddled in the sense that I was never quite sure what Khalid and Dawud were supposed to really do. The idea that you could basically send two clever guys to Syria and nip ISIS in the bud is… certainly an interesting idea but one that’s a bit hard to swallow. (Well, to be fair, two clever guys and Annarita, a Christian Italian feminist and patriot, who’s equally clever but can’t advance in backwards Europe, and also the only woman of importance in the book.) They give some smart but not exactly Machiavellian-level political advice to the overwhelmed local leaders, make some wry jokes, shoot at some terrorists, shake their heads at Europe’s backwardness, work to uncover leaks in the Ministry of Information, and discuss religion. Tada, Christian!ISIS doesn’t stand a chance.

(As a side-note, while I realise this book’s author and primary audience are Americans, for somebody living in Europe, setting the book in Italy proves a little odd. I think maybe for Americans, all of Western Europe is very modern, advanced, “civilised”, etc.? So describing Italy as backwards, hyper religious, sloppy, horrendous drivers, with everything running on bribes/personal favours/the Mafia, is supposed to be shocking and “make you think”. I live in Austria and that’s… uh, yeah, no, that’s more or less the negative stereotypes of Southern Europe around here too. Maybe for full effect the story should have been set in Scandinavia instead.)

Well, to sum up, I thought Through Darkest Europe had a great concept but I was left disappointed. It might be worth reading if the setting’s concept does really interest you, but I hope this review can serve as a heads up before you go in.

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