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Designated Targets : A Novel of the Axis of Time (Axis of Time Trilogy) by John Birmingham
Review by George Shaner
Del Rey Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 0345457145
Date: 25 October, 2005 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

As might be expected with the first book of a series, John Birmingham left us with more questions than answers at the end of Weapons of Choice. Would Admiral Philip Kolhammer's gambit to rescue the prisoners of the Japanese empire curry favor with the Allied governments of 1942, seeing how he managed to derail victory at the battle of Midway? Does Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's new go-for-broke strategy, in the wake of the arrival of the future force, have a realistic chance of bringing victory in the short run? Could the people of 1942 and 2021 cooperate and not turn on each other?

Those questions are still outstanding in the second book of what will apparently be at least a tetralogy, as there seems very little chance that Birmingham is going to wrap his story up in three books. Not that this is bad news, as anyone who liked the first book will certainly enjoy the second installment. One has the same dynamic battles depicting what happens when the massed military might of the Axis powers in 1942 meets the paladin-like exertions of Kolhammer's now scattered task force. There are the suggestions Birmingham offers as to what personages such as Hitler and Stalin would do with knowledge of the future. Most importantly, there is the unscrolling of big story of whether the Democratic West of 1942 and 2021 can really live with each other.

Apart from the set-piece battle segments, the issue of Western coexistence is really the backbone of this installment, as Admiral Kolhammer finds himself the governor of a state-within-a-state. This is as the US government has given Kolhammer a zone of control, where the laws of the future hold sway and in which new technology and attitudes are being introduced to the past. The serious threat is this: Does J. Edgar Hoover rally support against what-could-be and terminate Kolhammer's project? At least before public revelations about the skeletons in Hoover's own closet bring the FBI director down.

Further, even among American and Commonwealth leaders who see cooperation as the only road to victory, disquiet is rapidly setting in. This is as what Kolhammer, and his subordinates, consider respect for the laws of war leave men such as General Macarthur and Australian Prime Minister John Curtin increasingly aghast. In fact, the book ends on the note that Kolhammer is prepared to get much more radical vis-à-vis the Japanese leadership then he already has, over and above the field execution of identified war criminals. Call it a further commentary from Birmingham on how the Global War on Terror could come to impact our attitudes.

As for interesting character development, particular emphasis in this novel seems to be on Captain Karen Halabi of HMS Trident and Major Harry Windsor as they prepare for a looming invasion of Britain. It turns out that Halabi has a number of personal demons to slay, while I still find the cheek of Birmingham in writing Prince Harry into his novel quite amazing. Seeing as the actual prince seems mostly concerned these days with being a good platoon leader once he graduates from Sandhurst (if his public interviews are to be believed), perhaps Buckingham Palace is amused. As for how Birmingham deals with other historical personages, he still does better with villains such as Hoover, Stalin, and Hitler rather than with heroes such as Roosevelt and Churchill. But I consider that par for the course in novels like this as it takes real genius to play with icons; the exception here being the young John F. Kennedy.

If there is anything that I consider a fly in the ointment in this installment, it's that small errors of military history seem to be creeping in. For example, German Colonel Paul Brasch remembers the snarl of Tiger tanks on the Eastern Front in 1942, when that machine wasn't introduced to combat until 1943. What really irritates me though is how Birmingham has John F. Kennedy commanding PT101, not PT109 as was actually the case. This is an unusual little piece of slop in a series that has been punctilious so far in terms of getting the historical details right.

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