Thursday, August 02, 2012

Review: The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm is book 1 of Winston Churchill's epic 6-book fantasy novel about a war that engulfed the entire world from 1939 to 1945. The 6 volumes are enormous, each weighing in at about 800 pages, including appendices, notes, and so forth.

Wait, did I say fantasy novel? Well, if you had no knowledge of history, you might well imagine it. Here, we have an unmitigated bad guy (Hitler) who wants to take over Europe. The amount of stupidity in the back story makes many fantasy stories look like shining examples of realism. You've got a guy who repeatedly breaks his word, makes promises that later turn out to be empty, yet everyone except Churchill's immediate acquaintances bend over backwards to appease him.

Moreover, even though Churchill was in his own words, "in the political wilderness" during these years, he was still given plenty of access to defense information, enough for him to put together detailed critiques of the government's strategy when dealing with Germany and Italy. That would not be conceivable in today's political climate.

Of course, Churchill had vision and clarity far beyond many of the same period, and he provides ample documentation through his letters, writings and other forms of communication. When he describes the battles of the period, it is accompanied with diagrams, order of battle, and other detail, including diagrams of ship engagements. This is an amazing amount of detail but probably too much for non-WW2 enthusiasts. Fortunately, you can skip these details without losing sight of the over-arcing plot and insanity of the people involved at the time.

The book ends with Churchill getting to be Prime Minister. At no point does he gloat over Chamberlain's mistakes, and in fact, frequently states that Hitler under-estimated Chamberlain: once he realized he'd been had, he devoted himself to fighting the war.

One cannot read this book without coming away feeling like World War 2 could have been prevented or pre-empted with a much lower cost in lives. The context, the detail, and the perspective that Churchill provides cannot be matched. I have only a few complaints: first, the diagrams are barely readable on the Kindle edition of the book (the only version I'd consider since the paper copies are unmanageable). Secondly, the Kindle formatting loses your place at times, because there's no distinction between quotations from letters and the main text. Finally, Churchill's best speeches occur in the next volume, so if that's the only thing you're looking for, you should skip this volume.

Recommended. Even if your'e not a WW2 aficionado. At the very least, unlike George R. R. Martin's books, you know that this story eventually ends, and that Churchill won't fill a book with nothing happening.
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