John Birmingham

Axis of Time, book 2

Pan Macmillan Australia (2005)

ISBN: 9780345457158

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in September 2007)

Designated Targetsis the second book in a trilogy that tells the story of a military taskforce from the 21st century, who are accidentally thrown back in time 80 years, finding themselves in the middle of World War II. In the confusion of the initial “Transition”, as the accident comes to be known, the Taskforce inadvertently does considerable damage to the Allied fleet heading to the Battle of Midway – not a great start to their new lives in the 1940s.

Birmingham has essentially sidestepped all of the usual time travel paradoxes by simply asserting that once the Taskforce had landed in the 1940s, it was a parallel world to their own. That means they don’t have to worry too much about anything they do affecting the future; and that’s a good thing, because these people are less than subtle in their impact on the world. One thing they’re certain about, and that’s that they want to make sure the Allies win the war. But if they could also do that with less loss of Allied life, and without letting some of the horrors such as the Japanese Prisoner of War camps or the Nazi Extermination camps, that would be a good thing.

Unfortunately not all of the Taskforce came through in the same place or at exactly the same time; 21st century ships and crew have also fallen into the hands of Axis powers. And although most of the crew refuse to cooperate with their captors, this still means that the Axis has access to much of the same historical information about what “should” have happened in World War II. Birmingham has played well with this situation; because everyone knows what “should” have happened, it’s not as simple as making a different decision – they need to second guess what their opponents will do with the same information. In a particular battle, will the Allies assume that the Axis will do what history says they did, and work around that – or will they assume that the Axis will behave differently based on the historical information, and lay plans according to the best guess of what the Axis will do now? As actual events diverge further and further from history, Birmingham is able to present some interesting scenarios about what might have happened if things had played out just a little differently.

Unfortunately, this novel still suffers from the major problem of the first in the series – there are no characters that strongly engage the reader. In part this is because of the large cast that Birmingham is working with. But none of them really came to life for me, and at no stage did I really care what happened to them. It’s war, and people were getting killed left, right, and centre; and it just didn’t have an emotional impact.

Birmingham has also chosen to keep his focus firmly on the military impacts of the incursion from the future. This is probably sensible, given the already sprawling nature of the trilogy, but it does mean that some aspects of the novel feel unbalanced. He dwells quite a bit on the discomfort of 1940s commanders with female commanders, and indeed soldiers, from the future; but doesn’t consider at all their impact on broader society or the extent to which these women may have accelerated change in society and the military.

At times, too, I found Birmingham’s sly references to current pop culture just a little too self-conscious for my taste. For example, he returns often to Posh and David Beckham, not just naming a computer intelligence after Posh, but also making them a source of ongoing interest to many of the enlisted men. Prince Harry is one of the members of the Taskforce thrown back through time, but no real use is made of this except for a few jokes.

Birmingham writes his scenes of battle vividly and well. He’s clearly researched 1940s warfare thoroughly, and married that with a consistent and logical future style of warfare. He’s thought about the impact of those two styles of warfare coming up against each other, and what would happen, including the different attitudes of 1940s and 2020s soldiers. Unfortunately at times this was a little black and white; not all 1940s soldiers were “gentlemen”, and I’m sure not all 2020s soldiers would be hardened killers.

Ultimately, this novel lacked the spark to make it really interesting or engaging. As an intellectual “what if” exercise it worked quite well. And it’s likely that readers with a strong interest in either military history or military fiction would find parts of this interesting and well written. But for a more general reader, the lack of an interesting character or a sub-plot involving an engaging character makes this something of a chore to finish. It’s better than the first novel in the series, in part because we’ve had some time to sort out the many characters, making it a bit less confusing; but it’s still not outstanding.