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The First Heroes: New Tales Of The Bronze Age
edited by Harry Turtledove and Noreen Doyle
Tor, 368 pages

The First Heroes: New Tales Of The Bronze Age
Harry Turtledove
Harry Turtledove was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1949. In 1977, he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history from UCLA. In 1979, he published his first two novels, Wereblood and Werenight, under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson which he continued to use until 1985. In 1991, he left the Los Angeles County Office of Education, where he worked as a technical writer, to become a full-time author. He won the Hugo Award for Novella in 1994 for "Down in the Bottomlands" and "Must and Shall" was nominated for both the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Novelette and the 1996 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

Harry Turtledove Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Through the Darkness
SF Site Review: The Center Cannot Hold
SF Site Review: Ruled Britannia
SF Site Review: Colonization: Aftershocks
SF Site Review: Walk in Hell
SF Site Review: Darkness Descending
SF Site Review: American Front
SF Site Review: Household Gods with Judith Tarr
SF Site Review: Colonization: Second Contact
SF Site Review: Into the Darkness
SF Site Review: How Few Remain
SF Site Review: How Few Remain
SF Site Review: Between the Rivers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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The first observation I want to make about this anthology is that the reader need not be familiar with Bronze Age history any more than grammar school encounters with the Matter of Troy, or Jason and the Argonauts, or chariots or leaf-shaped swords, in order to enjoy this book. I am no Bronze Age scholar, and I found every story entertaining -- for different reasons. My overall impression is that there is something here for every type of reader, from young adults who might be sampling the mixing of history and science fiction or fantasy for the first time, to the ancient history scholar who likes to take the occasional dip into fictive explorations of their favorite period. There is also good reading here for the most sophisticated postmodern reader of literature, specifically the novella "Giliad," by Gregory Feeley, which, along with Noreen Doyle's "Ankhtifi the Brave is dying," were my favorites among several outstanding stories.

The reader probably should be warned that The First Heroes: New Tales Of The Bronze Age begins with what might be considered the least accessible story of all, Gene Wolfe's "The Lost Pilgrim." Narrated in Wolfe's characteristic fine prose, this story might be best approached as an alien encounter story -- not just because the protagonist is a being from the future who travels to the past for a purpose that is forgotten for some mysterious reason upon arrival. This is also true for any of us when approaching the history of our own species at such a far remove. No matter how much we might study the fragments surviving from those times, were we to be summarily smitten into the past we would be strangers in a strange land.

So in that sense the Wolfe is the perfect story to open this anthology. That awareness of alienness ought to accompany the reader all the way to the end of the book. Exciting, funny, sly, and then strange and quite poignant, the Wolfe is good reading; I will not spoil any surprises, just warn the reader who doesn't know the period to say the names out loud and discover the 'easter eggs' in the phonetic spellings.

The next five stories are far more accessible. Brenda Clough's vivid and engagingly written "How the Bells Came from Yang to Hubei" concerns itself with the period after the Zhou Dynasty ended in 221 B.C. Clough's artisans are caught between the demands of art and the demands of war, bringing the point home that all too often in our civilization our technological advances do not always come from the best motives.

Judith Tarr's "The God of Chariots" concerns the meetings of cultures and the ancient view of the divine. This story ought to appeal to the reader who loves historical romance, drawing as it does on familiar character motifs from that sub-genre. Harry Turtledove's "The Horse of Bronze" is told from the point of view of centaurs during a time when other-worldly beings are fading from the Earth. I didn't quite buy the centaurs' conclusion about humans, but that in no way prevented me from enjoying the story itself, especially Cheiron's voice. Turtledove's thorough familiarity with this period brings it delightfully to life. Josepha Sherman's entertaining "A Hero for the Gods" proves that divine attention isn't always what it's cracked up to be -- but humans do have their unexpected advantages. Though the previous three stories would probably appeal to most younger readers, I think "Blood Wolfe," by S.M. Stirling, would draw in the reluctant teen reader. Blood Wolf is a tough Gallic Chieftain's son, visiting England. This is a very strange England; it turns out people from our time have been transported to the past, and one of their actions was the establishment of this colony. In a ripsnortingly paced story our young hero is exposed to the technological and cultural changes that might occur after such an event.

One of the best-written stories is Noreen Doyle's "Ankhtifi the Brave is dying." The narrative follows Ankhtifi, who is old and sick, visiting his tomb where his remaining son is overseeing the construction. He reviews his life, watched over by a spirit from the land of the gods who has been appearing throughout his life. He comes back repeatedly to a central question. I don't think anyone who was not thoroughly immersed in Egyptian history could have written this story, with its stunning detail and easy handling of ancient Egyptian words, names, concepts, but it takes an exceptional talent to convey such knowledge with grace and clarity, resisting the impulse to deaden the story with far too much scholarship -- or struggle so hard to be absolutely scrupulous in detail that the characters become stiff and unconvincing.

Following such a strong story would be tough. The editors placed "The God Voice" there, a good choice. This collaboration between two excellent writers, Katharine Kerr and Debra Doyle, concerns Lawinia, married to Aeneas, who is accused by his son Askanios of murdering her husband. Askanios pursued Lawinia to the isolated cottage of Watis, oracle to the god Dian. Lawinia swears she did not murder him, so both agree that the case will be submitted to the god, and they will abide by his decision. It's told in a terse, vividly written present tense, the characters deftly drawn, the ending full of unpredictable twists.

There are two stories in the second half of the anthology that I think will please most readers, including the young. Karen Jordan Allen's "Orqo Afloat on the Willkamayu" concerns conflict between half brothers, each of whom wants to be Inka on the death of their father -- one favored by the father, and one perhaps by the gods. The structure will probably take effort for some readers at first, as there are bits of story wherein a point is made, followed by much longer flashbacks illustrating the point we've already been told, but these are full of interesting detail about Inca life on the verge of their great empire, and the ending snaps with energy. Laura Frankos' "The Sea Mother's Gift," set on the Orkney Islands around 1160 B.C. when the sheep there found an interesting way to survive the series of bad years following the eruption of the volcano Hekla in Iceland. Appealing characters in a clearly-drawn setting make this story accessible to young and old -- I'd love to see it get reprinted for young readers in particular.

Larry Hammer's offering is too unusual these days, and I hope will begin a new fashion for narrative in verse, evoking the nifty stories of Byron and Browning. It is a real shame that social occasions in our decadent day seldom include readings, as this metered sex farce would be wonderful to hear read by someone experienced with dramatic verse. It is dramatic, grim and excruciatingly funny in parts, and I will never again regard the word "myrmidons" in quite the same way.

Surprisingly there is only one story that deals with Troy, and that is the cool-toned, taut Lois Tilton story "The Matter of the Ahhiyans." Tilton writes consistently well, turning in some of the best Alternate History I have ever read; her observations dispassionate and wry, shot through with wit. In the hands of a good writer dispassionate does not mean neutral, or flat. The tension mounts inexorably and the ending resonates with passion. That one is probably my third favorite, though it's closely followed by the Kerr and Doyle, and by the last story in the anthology, "The Bog Sword" by the late Poul Anderson. The premise here is that a professor claims to have invented a way to send an individual back in non-physical form to "live" in the body of an ancestor. You're there only for a few hours, but you do acquire the host's memories. The protagonist wishes to risk the sometimes disconcerting -- sometimes shattering -- effects claimed by previous travelers to the past, in visiting late Bronze Age Denmark, which left few records. The story is characteristic Anderson -- well told, funny, human, harrowing, and finally poignant, all the more when one finishes and realizes it was his last.

The longest story is the previously mentioned novella, "Giliad," by Gregory Feeley. The plot-line concerns a man named Trent who is asked to beta-test a Bronze Age computer game, his wife Leslie who tends to scorn the lack of scholarship in most of these games but gets drawn into helping on the research end, and their single child, a small girl who delights in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings movies and plays happily with neighbors -- until she is required to struggle, as so many children did, with the images we could not escape on television during and immediately after 9/11. But this is no linear tale, unlike all the others. We also see the ancient world through the eyes of Nanshe, a little girl in Sumer; a scribe fifty years ago typing a science fiction story about nuclear war; we catch glimpses of the present day's problems in Iraq, particularly chilling when one considers this story was written and turned in a couple of years ago. The different viewpoints might appear to be disparate, but watch the skill of the transitions as the narrative shifts smoothly from one voice to the next, glides from present to past tense and then back again. The story is a brilliantly told Götterdämerung, its layers constructed so tightly that when the reader does finally perceive the whole there's a sense of the floor dropping away, revealing new possibilities of meaning.

"What is wrong cannot soon be put right -- at least not what lies in the mind, which occupies not two or even three dimensions, but the infolds of a space no one has mapped."
Twilight of the gods indeed.

Copyright © 2004 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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