Suppose the United States never gained its independence from Great Britain. Instead, George Washington and King George III forge an alliance that results in the North American Union. Instead of a war that weakens Britain’s grip on North America and contributes to the gradual decline of its world-spanning empire, peace ushers in an era of near-total British domination of North America, Africa, China, and Australia. Only Russia, and the Franco–Spanish “Holy Alliance” can possibly challenge it.
Against this altered historical backdrop, we have Thomas Bushell, a colonel in the Royal American Mounted Police. Bushell is in charge of security for the iconic painting The Two Georges during its time in New Liverpool. When it gets stolen on his watch, presumably by a group of “patriots” called the Sons of Liberty, Bushell has to find The Two Georges before the Sons destroy it and before King Charles arrives in America. If time runs out, the symbolic blow to the relationship between Britain and its colony would be disastrous.
So the stakes are high, and the world is quite different from what we are used to. In these respects, The Two Georges is both a satisfying mystery/thriller and a fascinating work of alternate history. Yet as much as Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove try, the novel never rises above mediocrity. The characters and their actions are predictable, right down to Bushell’s relationship with Kathleen O’Flannery. The dialogue is oddly stilted, reflecting a culture that seems to have stagnated since the late eighteenth century. Finally, while Dreyfuss and Turtledove create a fascinating portrayal of an alternative America, I’m at a loss as to how it could possibly have gotten into this configuration. This is not a dealbreaker, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
Let’s talk about the alternate history first. The book literally opens by establishing we are in an alternate universe through the preponderance of airships that has become the trope of alternative worlds (TVTropes!). Oh, and the internal combustion engine has still not supplanted steam-powered cars. (Indeed, it seems like this is a world from which the “innovation” of the mass assembly line is absent.) Everyone drinks tea and coffee, and black people are equal but still called Negros and tend to do office work. Feminism as we know it was never invented, and if a woman has a job then she is also promiscuous.
I’m being tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I can’t help it. The America of The Two Georges is simultaneously intriguing and completely unbelievable. It’s as if someone took a snapshot of pre-Revolutionary America and added in some twentieth-century technology. Since I can’t determine the point of divergence from our own timeline (it seems that it must have been much earlier than the Revolutionary War era if France and Spain have teamed up in an unholy alliance), it’s difficult to understand how American society has developed the way it has. Speculation is all well and good, and to some extent it’s a mark of the mettle of an alternate history novel that it inspires such. Still, the attitudes and mannerisms present in The Two Georges largely feel incongruous.
Then there’s the characterization. To Dreyfuss’ credit, he seems to make the characters more multidimensional than those I have observed in my reading of Turtledove to date. Bushell is a dyed-in-the-wool King’s man, but after he experiences the conditions in which coal miners must work, even he manages to sympathize with those who would seek a different way of life and a radical politics to match. There are two sides to every story, and while some of the villains are one-note, the protagonists and even some of the antagonists, like Sir David Clarke, all have their strengths, flaws, and idiosyncrasies. Bushell is a thoroughly introspective protagonist who nevertheless remains ready for action and does not shy away from self-sacrifice.
Alas, Dreyfuss and Turtledove have to go and ruin it with their dialogue.
It’s easy to overlook until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it: all the characters have an insufferable tendency to explain everything to each other. Every action, every decision, is accompanied by a careful rationale that meets with hearty approval from all the likeminded men. (I say “men” because the number of women characters can literally be counted on one hand.) Dialogue plays an important, even essential role in exposition; Dreyfuss and Turtledove carry this to an extreme. This novel is far too long, mostly because every event is accompanied by lengthy explanation and analysis (yet we still have little sense of the politics of the North American Union, except that it has some kind of Governor General—Sir Martin Luther King, no less—and political parts). It took me far too long to read this book, because as much as I enjoyed the actual mystery, the writing left so much to be desired.
As far as the plot goes, The Two Georges is quite tolerable. It has everything a thriller needs: race against time, that hint of a traitor in the midst, cross-country trips complete with bloodshed and mayhem, etc. Bushell and his allies have to find the painting and uncover a plot to assassinate King Charles, and every time they uncover a new lead, they also discover that the mystery goes even deeper than they ever suspected. The story is layered, albeit no particularly nuanced. Unfortunately, I found it fairly easy to predict the identity of the trailer. Unlike my dad, my skill at deciphering mysteries before the final page is underdeveloped, so when I guess the killer (or the traitor), it’s seldom a good sign for a book.
Harry Turtledove is unquestionably a master at imagination. He has an intense creativity that he applies to examining history and deciding how it might change if something were different. I’m still not convinced he’s a very good writer. And his team-up with Richard Dreyfuss has not swayed me. The Two Georges is an interesting conception of an alternative America, and I’m not sorry I read it. But as a novel it’s little more than a mediocre mystery with characters who might as well be painted on canvas.