by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The fifth volume of Harry Turtledove’s loosely connected juvenile Crosstime Traffic series, The Gladiator differs from earlier books in series in that his two main characters both come from the visited timeline rather than the home timeline. Gianfranco Mazilli and Annarita Crosetti are students at
Enver Hoxha Polytechnic Academyin . Although they normally wouldn’t seem like kids who would hang out, the fact that their families share a kitchen and bathroom mean that they are forced into proximity and have formed a friendship. Milan
In a world in which the Soviet Union succeeded and Communism is a worldwide political model, Gianfranco is a sixteen year old boy who is only average in school, but excels at playing the game “Rails across Europe” at a local game store, The Gladiator. Annarita is a year his senior and excels at school, with her main extracurricular outlet being meetings of the local chapter of the Young Socialists’ League. Their activities mesh when Annarita finds herself on a committee to investigate possible subversive behavior at The Gladiator, and she warns Gianfranco.
Once The Gladiator is raided and closed, the novel really begins to take off. Annarita’s inspection of the store has resulted in her committee giving it an official clean bill of health, an action that opened Annarita up to questions from the other members of the Young Socialists’ League. With nowhere else to get his fix of “Rails across
Europe,” Gianfranco appears at a loss, although he is able to rechannel his energy into his schoolwork and teaching Annarita how to play the game. Further complicating their lives is the appearance of Eduardo, one of the clerks at The Gladiator, who shows up looking for a hiding place.
Eduardo, of course, was one of the agents of Crosstime Traffic using The Gladiator to attempt to infiltrate new ideas into Annarita and Gianfranco’s timeline. While in the past, Turtledove has shown the Crosstime Traffic agents as traders, in this case, they clearly worried about the timeline’s ability to get access to their secret and were working to introduce subversive ideas under the guise of selling “harmless” games. Once Eduardo, or rather the Crosetti’s “Cousin Silvio” appears on the scene, the stakes are heightened, with the threat of denunciation just around every corner.
While the characters feel they can confide in Annarita’s father and mother, their difficulties are complicated by Gianfranco’s father’s position as an apparatchik, a mid-level bureaucrat for the local Communist party. While Mr. Mazzilli probably wouldn’t do anything to harm his son directly, his attitude towards Eduardo or the Crosettis can’t be counted on. Similarly, while Annarita’s rivals in the Young Socialists’ League previously only had a tenuous hold on her for questionable judgment, her involvement with the fugitive Eduardo could easily get her sent to a camp.While many of the earlier novels in the series have dealt with teenage agents of Crosstime Traffic stranded in a strange world, The Gladiator’s focus on local teenagers allows the give this world even greater examination than in earlier books where only one of the primary characters is a native. Gianfranco and Eduardo’s conversations together, however, still allow Turtledove to include the outsider’s point of view.
Both Gianfranco and Annarita are likable characters. Although Turtledove posits a potential villain in Annarita's rival in the Young Socialists’ League, Maria Tenace, the true conflict and tension is created simply by the existence of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist state which is all pervasive. He does an excellent job in depicting a paranoid world where anyone can turn out to be an enemy for any slight, real or imagined.
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