I will be completely honest with all of you. This review was something of a surprise to me. It had not been on my schedule to review until I finished reading it.
While I am a fan of alternate history and will always be ready to sing the praises of a book that captures my attention, I usually find myself drawn to the works of well-known or famous alternate history writers. That is not the case with today's novel.
A Prophet Without Honor was written by Joseph Wurtenbaugh and is, as one might imagine, an alternate World War 2 story. These are almost dime a dozen in the alternate history genre and it takes a lot to impress me; but Wurtenbaugh's outing chooses not only to approach the subject from a new angle, directing the point of divergence to occur at the Reoccupation of the Rhinelands, an operation by the Nazis to reoccupy Germany's western borderlands with military forces in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, but by revealing that approach through a narrative structure that I've rarely seen before in any genre.
The book is deeply challenging once one can engage with the unique story structure and is very poignant to a modern American reader up to date with the comings and goings of our current political climate. The rise and poison of Nazism and totalitarianism is revealed in a way that few books manage to accomplish successfully and it accomplishes this goal without resorting to the "Great Man View of History".
A Prophet Without Honor is quite simply a book that once I finished it, I needed to spread it to everyone else.
- Written by Joseph Wurtenbaugh (Penname of Frank Dudley Berry Jr.)
- Published Independently
- Available in Paperback and E-Book on Amazon.com
- 603 pages (E-Book Edition)
A Prophet Without Honor tells the life story of Karl von Heidenreich, a fictional German soldier who joins the German Army Intelligence services. That story is told through the letters, diary entries, and selected segments from
fictional biographies of the people who knew von Heidenreich (as well as himself). From his closest friends and family to his bitterest enemies, we watch a
tale of love and sacrifice unfold around a very common man watching his world go insane with
the atrocities of Nazism and his genuine desire and efforts to confront
it and ultimately oppose it.
Karl finds himself, by the nature of his position and the unique experiences of his upbringing, present at some of the most famous events in the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany, including the Beer-hall Putsch and the Night of the Long Knives. Being witness to these events and with a unique perspective, Karl is driven to act against a government that he sees as violently corrupt and dangerous for the peace of the world, even when those around him don't quite see the danger yet. All this leads to a momentous decision during the Reoccupation of the Rhineland, which represented a watershed moment in the history of Nazi Germany and precipitated much of the atrocities that would follow as a result, and a horrifying tragedy in the fallout brought about by senseless hate.
I can almost guarantee that the story structure might be the most difficult part to get into. It can take quite some time to actually "get" what the book is going for with its underlying structure and figuring out which perspectives to trust and which ones to read inversely might take a bit of time, though they reveal themselves easily enough. The story actually warms the reader up to the narrative structure by focusing the first act of the story around a series of letters between Karl's father, his eventual stepmother, and their various family members who either disapprove or approve of the two's relationship. I think it actually works really well in starting the structure off sumple with a majority of two-four "perspectives" of the story before the major beats begin and it switches to almost a dozen different quotes and sections from fictional biographies and autobiographies, including Karl's own diary entries.
For a lot of readers however, the strange style may be to much for them. Even with that said, I do stress that A Prophet Without Honor really is a story that I think needs to be read.
An element of alternate history that almost always comes into play is allowing the reader to relish in the strange similarities and differences that an alternate reality creates for our world. Seeing how various famous people or known technologies have changed as a result of the point of divergence has become such a mainstay that A Prophet Without Honor actually becomes a major outlier as a result. The major historical Point of Divergence isn't really the point of the story, and you begin to uncover that as the story progresses.
To say that A Prophet Without Honor is a slow-burn is a gross understatement. The actual alternate history doesn't even fully take effect until the final 150 pages of the book and it moves pretty quickly once that point hits. No, the lion's share of the narrative's focus lies in showing us Karl von Heidenreich's life up to the moments of the Rhineland Occupation. It shows us his early childhood and reveals the elements that eventually lead him to becoming the man that becomes incredibly important in a single instance, and in truth, he isn't even punished because of the actions he takes, but because he was a useful scapegoat due to a series of petty slights that occurred years before.
Where any other alternate history would start with the Point of Divergence and watch how the "Great Men of History" react in the fallout, A Prophet Without Honor climaxes with the POD and only highlights a few events and allows the rest of history until the present to be largely inferred based on context clues. While this might turn off some of the more traditional alternate history fans, I think it actually works great for helping to introduce new readers to the genre as it doesn't really suffer from the major pitfall of most alternate histories, which I've mentioned before, that being the necessity of the reader to be historically literate. Because the main characters of the story are a majority fictional with no real world counterparts, we can follow real historical events from an on-the-ground perspective without the need to know what they are ahead of time.
And the nature of that perspective is very important for the story. Karl von Heidenreich is not a paragon of virtue or some great historical figure, but rather a fairly privileged but exceedingly well-meaning man simply trying to do right and live well. He is rather apolitical and has friends that are of every political spectrum and religious doctrine and even this colors his perspective on the world. Throughout the story we are shown perspectives of people who paint him as either a messianic martyr who died to return reason and goodness to the world or as a devil who killed Nazism in the cradle before it had the chance to "restore" Germany to its rightful place in the world. The benefit of hindsight and historical literacy will automatically drive an audience towards a specific opinion on that matter, but the fact that Joseph Wurtenbaugh doesn't try to paint the fall of Nazi Germany in 1936 as a wholly positive or negative (though I believe it to be a fundamental positive in the long-run) adds a degree of realism to the entire exercise. The real world had many good and bad things happen as a result of the Second World War (such as the rejection of Nazism as a legitimate political ideology for most the 20th century) and this is reflected in A Prophet Without Honor.
In truth, A Prophet Without Honor isn't really a story about what our world would look like if the Rhineland Occupation failed and Nazi Germany collapsed before the Second World War ever happened, but rather it is the story of how much power a single indivudal has to oppose evil when they seize upon the opportunity to do the right thing when its most important. We follow so much of Karl's life because every single moment we bear witness to helps to inform us as to the kind of man that needed to be brought into the precise moment that changes Karl's world for the better. We watch his mistakes, his joys, and his sorrows they forge a very common everyday man. And because we follow Karl's life in such an intimate way, Wurtenbaugh uses that to show us the slow and methodical ways in which fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism infected Karl's day-to-day life to such a degree that he felt compelled to oppose it.
This is the most powerful element at play and the reason I felt compelled to mention this story now. You can read A Prophet Without Honor on Amazon for $0.99 as an E-Book. As I was reading the story and watching the tiny ways that Karl's world began to turn upside down, I could not help but draw some truly terrifying parallels to our modern American life. In the last decade, the rise of the alt-right, ultraconservatives, and fascists to the forefronts of American political discourse through the actions of the Trumpist political cults and QAnon conspiracy theorists has been almost unavoidable to be seen.
I was reading A Prophet Without Honor while the Capitol was being attacked by Trump's supporters and literally as I am writing this, that same man was acquitted by his victims because those same followers have to much power over a single political party. Just as Karl bears witness to the myriad of minor horrors that the Nazis inflict upon their world before their power is completely absolute (an action which occurred as a result of the success of the Reoccupation of the Rhineland in our timeline), I could not help but draw deeply troubling parallels to the modern American political landscape. The vast majority of us are a lot like Karl von Heidenreich. Living simple lives, remaining largely apolitical and simply hoping to start a happy family. But the world around us to showing more and more little acts of horror that call upon everyday people to act.
Karl von Heidenreich isn't some extraordinary human being with divine knowledge, superior talent, or a strange call to destiny. He is a proficient saxophone player who loves jazz, adores his late stepmother and upholds her moral values, and desires to do right by his wife and children. What makes him such a heroic character is his simple desire to oppose terrible actions when he sees them and use his many privileges to make the lives of others better than his own. Even as other people seemingly avoid talking about the actions of the Nazis or even justify them, Karl remains resolute in his hatred of everything they stand for and sees the dangers that we, as an audience who knows what they will eventually do, clearly. It makes him a deeply sympathetic character whose fate becomes all too clear.
As I read the story I kept wishing desperately that Karl's story would have a happy ending. I wished that the man who was willing to oppose evil would rise above it and triumph completely, even though there are enough clues to show us that that is not to be the case. And while he does ultimately loses his life in a truly horrifying way, his victory against Hitler and his cronies is perhaps even more complete than I could've hoped for. Because Karl ultimately wins the moral war through the lives well-lived of his family.
While bittersweet, A Prophet Without Honor is a triumphant story of sacrifice in the name of simple humanity. Karl von Heidenreich isn't some great philosopher or powerful leader or conqueror, just a kind man who wishes the world to be kinder to others. His beliefs are inspiring in a way that helps you to connect to him very closely and, though the underlying story structure may turn some people off, it is the tale of triumph of a common man against an overwhelming evil which I cannot help but feel is incredibly poignant in our modern day.
The United States needs more people like Karl von Heidenreich in it right now. People willing to stand against what they know to be wrong in their hearts, even if they lack the political power or intelligence to becomes leaders against it. The courage of simple acts of kindness and the power to stand in opposition to overwhelming power, even when that opinion is not popular. A Prophet Without Honor is unlike any alternate history I have ever read and I consider it not only great reading but almost mandatory reading for anyone who wants to read a one-of-a-kind tale of one man's fight to do the right thing in a world slowly turning the wrong way.
FINAL SCORE - 9.5/10
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