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GODS OF WAR : by John Toland (Doubleday: 17.95; 592 pp.)

March 03, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Kaplan is an author and The Times' urban design critic. and

After writing various popular histories focusing on World War II, particularly the conflict between the United States and Japan, John Toland has turned to fiction, contending that it is "the fittest stage for humanity." The historian adds in a foreword that though the characters and their actions in his novel were invented, the story "is as real as, if not more real than, formal history."

Though this may be true, cliches buffet Toland's fiction as he chronicles the adventures of two families related by marriage, the American McGlynns and the Japanese Todas, bearing witness to the tragic events of the war in the Pacific. Most annoying are the contrivances.

It is not enough that the elder McGlynn, an author of various respected books on the character of Japan, advises President Roosevelt on relations with Japan, his oldest daughter spends most of the war in Tokyo as the wife of a peace-loving Japanese diplomat, his eldest son perseveres in a series of Japanese prison camps, another son island hops as a "gung-ho," yet thoughtful, Marine, while another daughter is a fledgling war correspondent in the Pacific.

You name it--Pearl Harbor, Corregidor, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, even Nagasaki the fateful day an atomic bomb was dropped on the city--one stalwart McGlynn or another was there. And to a lesser extent in other appropriate critical arenas of the Pacific war, including Singapore, Tokyo, Saipan and Okinawa, are the sympathetic, stoic Todas.

Still, once you wade into the melodrama, identify the cartoon characters, establish the time frames of the subplots Toland now and then forgets to synchronize, the story becomes a page-turner in the mediocre tradition of the blockbuster war novel. You have to find out what happens, who survives what tragedy and how, and if the families are ever reunited or, for that matter, if somehow they ever meet up with the indefatigable Henrys, the family chronicled in Herman Wouk's "Winds of War" and "War and Rememberance." They certainly appear to be poor cousins.

Indeed, those who were engrossed by Wouk's epics should be engaged by Toland's efforts. Despite problems of style, structure and pacing in making the transition from nonfiction to fiction, Toland does have a story to tell.

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