FOX AND EMPIRE
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Harry Turtledove's Fox and Empire is a return to the first fantasy novels, Turtledove published: Wereblood and Werenight (both Belmont Tower, 1979, collected by Baen, 1994). Both Turtledove's skill and the scope of the series has grown since then. However, in many ways, Fox and Empire is a novel which returns to the situations of the first books (which I'll refer to as Werenight, the Baen titled republication).
In Werenight, Gerin the Fox was summoned to his ancestral homelands from Elabon when his father and brother are killed by the invading Trokme. Even as Gerin and his traveling companions, Van, Rihwin and Elise stem the invasion, the Elabon Empire closes off the passes through the High Kirs Mountains, leaving Gerin to fend for himself, which he proceeds to do through the next two sequels.
Fox and Empire is set twenty years later. Elise has been gone from Gerin's life for sixteen years, having left Gerin with a son, Duren. Her place has been filled by Selatre, the former oracle of Biton Gerin met in Prince of the North. The Trokme have been Gerin's allies since the attempted invasion by the Gradi in King of the North, and Gerin is on the verge of war with his rival, King Aragis the Archer.
As John Lennon has written, "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." When Gerin arrives on his frontier, armed and ready for war, he discovers that the war he will fight is not against his Aragis, but rather against the Elabonian Empire with Aragis at his side as an ally.
Perhaps more than anything else, the appearance of the Empire in this novel gives is a retrospective feel. In many ways this is a strength, however it does make the reader wonder a little about Turtledove's world. The werenight is now twenty years in the past. Will we be witness to another one? Is this a part of Turtledove's world which is past? The ghosts which Turtledove presents, which are very different from his ghosts in "Bluff" or Between the Rivers, still exist, but their presence is more a simple annoyance than anything else. Perhaps what I found myself wondering about most is the character of Van, Gerin's companion of twenty years.
When Van first appeared in Werenight, he was a traveler, Fox Keep merely another stop on his endless journey to see the sights of this world. Van has now remained at Fox Keep for over more than twenty years, his wanderlust apparently sated by the occasional forays into the wilderness he makes in Gerin's service. While I accepted this in the two preceding novels, it seems a little off base by the time Fox and Empire takes place. Not a fatal flaw by any means, but it would be nice to see Van take off on his own.
Even as Turtledove's characters are reminded of the past, he adds new characters and themes to his world. Perhaps foremost among the characters is Ferdulf, the demigod son begot upon one of Gerin's serfs by the Sithonian God of Wine, Mavrix. This is probably the most detailed examination of a god Turtledove has written in his works. Only four-years old, Ferdulf is a complex mixture of child and adult, refusing to accept anyone as his superior, but still recognizing Gerin as a father-figure.
Turtledove also examines gender roles in a Medieval milieu. This is an area which has been frequently examined by Turtledove's sometime co-authors, Judith Tarr and Susan Shwartz. However, while they usually portray women who are far and away extraordinary, Turtledove uses Van's daughter, Maeva, to look at a woman's place in society. What makes his examination even more interesting is watching Gerin's innovative character attempting to deal with an innovation not his own.
There are times, particularly during the first chariot battle between the Northlanders and the Elabonians, when Turtledove's prose in almost cinematographic in nature. His depiction of a bronze age chariot battle is possibly one of the best and most realistic in fantasy fiction.
As I have read more of this particular series, I have become more and more impressed with what Turtledove is doing in this world. Each novel has added new dimension and depth to the characters and situations. Not as well known as Turtledove's alternate history or Videssos Cycle, the Gerin the Fox stories have quietly become a series to watch.
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