I doubt if any novel of the last Pacific war contains such a detailed, accurate, blow-by-blow account of the American fight against the Japanese as "Gods of War" by John Toland, an expert historian on this subject (remember "But Not in Shame"). Like many writers, he has turned from nonfiction to the novel, and thus has the enormous advantage of being able to fit his characters into all the right places at the right times, in situations where he can write with complete authority. In other words, when he picks out the two families in this book -- the American McGlynns and the Japanese Todas -- he has done all his homework.

And there's quite a lot of learning in this heavy packet of compulsive bedtime reading, for there is hardly a scene missing from the diplomatic events leading up to Pearl Harbor, and after that, every phase of the war to the bombing of Nagasaki.

Because John Toland obviously loves Japan, the novel has an extra insight into the feelings of despair there and in the United States. The McGlynns and the Todas are not only linked by marriage; their destinies are linked with the rulers of each warring country. McGlynn pe re is a confidant of Roosevelt; they are on first-name terms as McGlynn tries to persuade FDR to behave more tolerantly to avoid war. Tadashi Toda is not only married to McGlynn's daughter but also serves in a diplomatic post in Washington before electing to return to the hardship of Japan when war breaks out. In Japan he is in contact with the ruling classes.

Both families suffer losses, both meet on the field of a dozen battles from Bataan to Tarawa. Both become prisoners. There is a twin road leading through the story -- road, not the plural roads, because we are looking at the agony of different people, different races, traveling the same, single road. The feeling (without any excuses by Toland for the Japanese treatment of prisoners) makes compelling reading. The author is strictly neutral, perhaps, at times, too neutral.

Oddly enough, one of the few times there is real anger (not the anger of fighting men and so on) is when Toland deals with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a minor character in this war drama. The episodes dealing with MacArthur reek of Toland's hatred for the general; he is portrayed as a braggart, as devious and as a thoroughly selfish man.

The book succumbs to something that all historians face, the temptation to put in an unimportant vignette just because the writer has witnessed it. This happens when Mark McGlynn falls in love with the Maori girl Hinemoa in New Zealand, and when walking in the country together:

"Mark felt the ground rolling under him. Earthquake! He grabbed Hinemoa and pulled her toward the road. Stand still, she said calmly. He grasped her tightly. There was a strange rumbling noise and a stretch of ground more than fifty yards in length miraculously opened up just ahead of them. Hinemoa said it was all over but Mark was so stunned he couldn't move for several moments. Never had he been so terrified -- not even at Guadalcanal. Hinemoa walked up calmly to the long crevasse and looked down. Mark cautiously joined her, peered down. He could see no bottom. He dropped a good-sized rock into the narrow chasm. There was no sound."

Well, I mean to say! That's carrying sang-froid to excess. Because that's the end of the earthquake story. It's never mentioned again; it seems to have had no effect on the two characters. They don't even say as a nonchalant British officer might have said, "Jolly interesting, eh?" Making room to include a personal experience in a novel when it has no significance is one of the dangers facing the historian-turned-novelist, especially one with a profound knowledge. The trick is to select, discard, file away a great deal for future reference, giving the characters more chance to dwell longer on fewer moments of drama so that their characters can evolve more excitingly.

Still, small faults aside, this is a massive novel, broad in its scope and fascinating in its detail. Like all good sagas based on recent war history, it cannot fail.