Book Review: The Man In The High Castle

The Man In The High Castle Book CoverI usually am a big fan of alternate history fiction; especially anything that has to do with 20th century America. It’s a chance to really think about what the world would be like if a significant event or action hadn’t happened. We apply the same thinking to our own life – often questioning past decisions and wondering if the choices we did make were the right and best ones for us at the time. I myself am guilty of this and I doubt anyone else could claim differently.

So imagine my disappointment as I made my way through The Man in the High Castle. I came across this book because of a recent preview for a new Amazon series. It’s a TV adaptation of the book that’s similar to the BBC series for Pride and Prejudice and Downtown Abbey. The series looked like a winner so I assumed the book would be the same.

Set in 1962, the story follows the two victorious competing Axis powers Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany as they impose totalitarian rule over the United States. The assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 is marked as the catalyst that changed the entire direction of WWII. Shoddy and weak leadership under FDR’s VP, John Garner, and then subsequent administrations fail to elevate the US from the Great Depression. The US doesn’t expand its industrial and military labor sectors leaving it vulnerable to the impending Pearl Harbor attack. By 1947 the Pacific Coast is occupied by Japan and Germany has taken possession of conquered USSR. Both powers fall into their own version of the Cold War, enacting cultural and racial extermination and caste systems, resource grabbing, nuclear and energy monopolization, and a race to colonize and occupy neighboring planets, Venus and Mars.

The story is told through the experiences of various characters in the occupied territories. Some know each other well, while others are loosely connected through indirect channels. All must adjust and cope with living under totalitarian rule and in constant fear of having their own racial and political identities exposed. I found myself moved by Frank Fink’s struggle concealing his Jewish identity in order to avoid Nazi extermination while still trying to come to grips with the post-war realty he finds himself in and the rejection he receives by his ex-wife. Robert Childan’s hidden admiration for the Nazis and disdain for the very Japanese customers his livelihood depends on is chilling.

It’s a gripping tale when you think about it. The story has a little bit of everything – intrigue, assassination plots, love triangles, affairs, political deception, religious fealty, and class and race tensions. I should have been able to breeze through it in one sitting; unable to put it down. Instead, I found myself struggling with the disjointed and sometimes awkward flow of the syntax. The novel jumped between too many characters in the opening few chapters for me to establish a firm understanding of who they were and their importance to the storyline. I had to return multiple times and reread certain sections.

The Man In The High Castle is a perfect example of a brilliant story that falls short because of poor execution. Perhaps the TV series will provide it with a second chance to dazzle and wow me. I’m going to hope for the best.