John Birmingham

Axis of Time, book 3

Pan Macmillan Australia (2006)

ISBN: 9780330423397

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

Final Impact is the final novel in a trilogy that tells the story of a world in which World War II is disrupted when a military Taskforce from the 2020s is accidentally thrown back in time by an experiment goes wrong. The Taskforce lands in the middle of the Allied fleet en route to the Battle of Midway. Once the resulting firefight has ceased, and the confusion sorted out, the Taskforce sets its eyes on ensuring that the Allies win World War II, as they “should”. Unfortunately the Taskforce has already considerably warped the original course of the war; and even more unfortunately, some parts of the Taskforce have fallen into the hands of Axis powers, meaning they too have access to historical records about the outcome of the war and particular battles; and access to technical information about weapons not yet invented.

One area where Birmingham has remained consistent with the “real” World War II is in the personalities of the main players – people such as Hitler, Stalin, Himmler, Churchill. He has used this as the crux of how the war ultimately turns out – whatever knowledge they all have, however the original course of the war has been derailed, these people still make decisions in the same way they originally did. They still suffer from the same personality defects and strengths, and this influences the final outcome.

The basic idea is a good one, and as in the earlier novels Birmingham has extrapolated the military situation well. By the time of this novel, there have been a lot of changes to the original course of the war, as the ripples from some of the first changes continue to spread; he has expanded these in a logical and interesting manner.

Disappointingly, in this third novel Birmingham spends less time contemplating the social impact of the Taskforce. In the first novel, there were some interesting tasters of the potential impact of the Taskforce’s social attitudes on 1940s attitudes to people of different races, women, sexual behaviour, dress and so on. Unfortunately, Birmingham has never really explored this to its fullest, choosing instead to focus largely on the military impacts. Although it’s fair enough to limit the scope of what is already an extremely long trilogy, this was an area that Birmingham seemed set to handle well and which I found interesting, so I was sorry to see it get less and less consideration as the trilogy progressed.

Final Impact has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors. Birmingham has clearly thought through the military side of this story very well, and depicts the decision making process of the commanders, battles and the consequences of them very vividly. He also seems to have a good grasp of likely directions for military technology, creating realistic future weapons that were clearly descended from the 1940s weapons. His depiction of some of the conflicts in the command structures of both the Allied and Axis powers also rang true.

But there were no characters that really came to life, or that a reader could really care about. And in painting such a broad canvas, Birmingham has failed to give us a compelling subplot to follow – a character that we care about deeply who may or may not survive the war; someone from the 1940s whose whole life is disrupted by the arrival of the Taskforce… anything, really, that would give some kind of emotional centre to the novel (or indeed, the trilogy).

Overall, I found this trilogy dissatisfying. At no point did the characters come to life, and each novel lacked the extra spark needed to be truly interesting. Although Birmingham writes his action scenes well, in a way that was lively and temporarily interesting, this simply wasn’t enough to carry either a novel or a trilogy. I wanted a character I could care about, or a subplot with some real sense of risk. These just weren’t present. Although readers with a strong interest in military history or military fiction may find these novels more readable, their sheer bulk and the fact that they’re slow reads will probably put all but the most dedicated off. Neither this novel nor the trilogy as a whole was a failure, but it didn’t live up to the potential of either the idea or the capacity Birmingham sometimes showed to write good action.