Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove

Believe it or not there was a time I read physical books rather than audiobooks, and on occasion I still do, and so I have decided to review one such book in this blog post.  That book is Gunpowder Empire, book 1 of the Crosstime Traffic series, by Harry Turtledove.  This was not only the first Harry Turtledove book I ever read, but it was also the first alternate history book I ever read.

The book takes place in the 29th century; in the past Earth was ravaged by overpopulation, environmental degradation and fossil fuels got used up.  Fortunately, all of those problems got solved when travel between universes got discovered.  Earth trades with parallel Earths to get food and raw materials, but they do so in secret and undercover; best not to panic the locals or give the more advanced timelines any ideas.  The story follows Jeramy Solters and his family go on missions to an alternate (as the universes are called) known as Agrippan Rome.  In this alternate Marcus Agrippa managed to live longer than in our world and conquered Germania, which help ensure the Roman Empire never fell.  In time Rome discovered gunpowder and developed firearms; unfortunately technological progress stagnated after that and Rome became a gunpowder empire (hence the title).  

The Solters trade in goods that are slightly better than what the Romans have in hopes to starting the wheels of progress once again.  Specifically they trade things like mirrors, razors, mechanical clocks and pocket watches, and so on.  Everything is going well on a routine trip when Mrs. Solters starts having abdominal pain and has to go back to the home timeline with Mr. Solters.  Jeramy and his sister Amanda are going to be on their own for hopefully not too long.  However, it's not long before the computer loses contact with the home timeline all together.  What's happened?  Will Jeramy and Amanda ever see their parents and their home timeline ever again?  Will they survive the coming invasion of the Lietuvians?  

Like I said, this was both my first Turtledove novel and my first alternate history novel; even after all this time I still say it was the perfect starting point for me.  One of the great things about the Crosstime Traffic series is that all of the novels are standalones and can be read in any order.  I just read them in order of publication because I'm that way.  Now, I've noticed a lot of older readers complaining about the fact that the protagonists are teenagers and that the novels seems geared towards young adults.  To those people I have this to say: you know that's the point right?  Turtledove wrote this series specifically to introduce teenagers and young adults to alternate history, so older readers weren't the target demographic.  I suppose this confusion comes from the books being shelved with Turtledove's adult books rather than in the young adult section.  

Turtledove has a Phd in Byzantine History, and I could definitely tell that he was in his element when he wrote this novel.  The descriptions of daily life in an alternate Roman Empire were lovingly and knowledgeably crafted.  I also liked the descriptions of how religion turned out.  For example there are only three gospels and the Bible has different end because John the Apostle was never born and Paul wrote letters to church that don't exist in our world.  Meanwhile, Christianity is split between those willing to making offerings to the emperor, known as Imperial Christians, and those who refuse to do so.  Also, Jesus is simply considered one god among many.  Maybe it was because I was always hungry when I got to them, but the descriptions of the food was great.  At one point I ate some bread and honey along with the characters and even made a toast to the emperor's health.  

It was also fun to see the little knowing winks to Turtledove's other works.  There's a scene where Jeramy plays a video game about aliens invading in the middle of World War II.  For those who don't get it, Turtledove's WorldWar series was going to get a video game adaptation, but for various reasons it fell through.  There's also mention of a world were the American Revolution never happened and America remain with Britain, and in a bit of foreshadowing to the following Crosstime Traffic novel, a world where Germany won World War I.  The exact boarders of this Roman Empire weren't established, but there's been fan speculation and so I've included this handy map to give you an idea.  Dark blue is firmly Roman, lighter blue is probably Roman, lightest blue is disputed and brown is Lietuvian.    

They say alternate history can also be a learning experience about actual history, and that was certainly true here.  I really got a few for what it would be like living in Ancient Rome.  It wasn't all gladiators and circuses, and even then those tended to be fairly violent and gory by modern standards.  There was slavery, head lice, the threat of invasion, poverty and other such things.  Yet there was also a fair amount of grandeur and awe, and I was still filled with a sense of wonder at this brave new world I explored with the turn of a page.  I also got to learn about the Lithuanians, some of their history and how they were pretty cool too.   

Where Jeramy and Amanda the most memorable of characters?  Maybe they weren't, but they served a purpose.  That could be applied to most of the characters.  They all helped brings the world of Agrippan Rome to life and show what made it tick.  Also, don't be afraid to get attached to anyone, because for once in a Turtledove novel, everyone lives!  Suffice it to say that this means there's a happy ending and Al, works out for the best.  Hey, I like happy endings, and so it was all good to me.  It find it humor in hindsight that Crosstime Traffic was a more business like version of the company from Twilight Histories, for whom I often make maps.  Perhaps it's only fitting that Crossitme Traffic was where I got my alternate history start.    

This was my first alternate history novel and my first Turtledove novel.  Even to this day it remains one of my favorites and most memorable alternate histories.  Pick up a copy today, and take a journey across time.  

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