|Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove|
|Tor Books, 508 pages|
|A review by Rich Horton
Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove both hold PhD's in History. Thus the idea of those two collaborating on a novel about 2nd-century Rome seems a natural. The only concern might be an overload of information, but in Household Gods, while we get tons of information indeed, it's presented in a very palatable fashion.
The book starts a bit slowly. Nicole indeed has been treated unfairly, but the authors make clear that she's brought a certain amount of her troubles on herself. (For instance, she is very rude to her daycare provider.) Thus, at the onset, we are presented with a rather unlikable protagonist. She winds up in 2nd-century Rome in the body of her ancestor, Umma. Umma is the owner of a tavern, and the mother of two children, as well as the mistress of a slave. Nicole as Umma starts out viewing her fellow Romans from her rather priggish 20th-century viewpoint. For example, Nicole doesn't drink and is therefore horrified to discover that Umma owns a tavern. But one night spent on a chamberpot after drinking the local water without benefit of alcohol cures her of that prejudice.
Nicole grows rapidly as she spends time in the provincial town of Caruntum, and as she grows, the reader's sympathy for her is engaged. She is quickly disabused of her silly notion that Rome in that era was an egalitarian society. But she retains her anti-slavery position, even as her prejudices against other Roman habits, such as corporal punishment of children, and drinking wine, diminish in the face of reality. The book becomes a catalogue of misfortunes. The authors seem to take unholy enjoyment in heaping ever more serious inconveniences upon their protagonist. She faces minor troubles like head lice, chamberpots instead of toilets, 2nd-century dentistry, the persistent odours of that time, and the lack of variety in her diet. This would almost be funny, except soon she faces major problems: plague, war, and the threat of rape and starvation.
Nicole's story in Caruntum is involving, as she comes to terms with her new life. Especially interesting are the people she meets: her slave Julia, who takes delight in her secondary profession of prostitute; her children Lucius and Aurelia; Umma's lover Titus Calidius Severus, so puzzled when Nicole rebuffs him, but so much more civilized in his fashion than many of the 20th-century men Nicole has become disgusted with. We even get a brief glimpse of the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
I'm the farthest thing possible from an expert on that time period (well, not the farthest: the original Nicole Gunther-Perrin knew less than me!), so I can't speak authoritatively, but to my perceptions the description the authors give of everyday life in 2nd-century Rome rings very true. And the authors implicitly refute the notions of books like L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, which feature the modern protagonist introducing new inventions to change the course of history. Nicole realizes she doesn't really know enough about how modern conveniences work to introduce a new invention, and even if she did, she doesn't have the standing, or even the time, to make her ideas heard. Her brief stabs at introducing the rudiments of ideas like the germ theory of disease fall entirely flat.
This is a long novel, but after a slow start it becomes very absorbing. Nicole's struggles seem real, and her personal growth seems earned. The depiction of life in 2nd-century Rome is believable and fascinating. I recommend this novel to anyone interested in a real look at a historical period quite different from our own.
Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.
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