BETWEEN THE RIVERS
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
While Between the Rivers has the feel of Mesopotamia, it is set in a world modeled after that region and period, not in our own world's timeline. Sharur of Gibil leaves his home city for a trade mission to the lands of Alashkurrut, vowing to return with profits to pay the brideprice for his intended, Ningal. The gods of Alashkurrut, however, refuse to permit their people to trade with Sharur, or any other Giblut, and he returns to Gibil empty-handed.
In this world postulated by Harry Turtledove, seemingly related to the worlds of The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump and Thessalonica, the gods, demons and magic actually do exist. In these earliest days of mankind, the gods rule their cities directly, being able to speak to or through their worshippers as well as control their actions. The one place where men have revolted against the rule of the gods is in Gibil, one reason the Alashkurrut gods refuse to trade with them.
Anyone who has read much of Turtledove's fantasy will recognize Sharur immediately as Gerin the Fox, Krispos or Maniakes of Videssos, or Abivard of Makuran. However, Sharur does have an important difference which makes him interesting and sets him apart from his literary predecessors. He is still a young man and prone to the folly and errors young men make. Although clever, in his folly he vowed to use his profits to marry Ningal. When he has failed to bring back profits, his god, Engibil, refuses to permit him to backslide from his vow. Sharur's quest to re-establish Gibil as a trade power stems as much from that as from his devotion to his city.
Between the Rivers also deals heavily with the question of free will. In all this world, only the Giblut possess free will, for citizens of other cities must listen to and obey their gods who can take over their bodies and powers of speech at any time. Even in Gibil, where the lugals (city rulers) have ruled on their own for nearly three generations, Kimash, lugal of Gibil, still realizes that his power could be taken away if he doesn't continue to distract Engibil with interesting bribes.
When the novel opens, Sharur has no question in his mind that self-rule is better than god-rule. As his quest and travails continue, he never loses this belief, but he slowly becomes aware of some of the problems inherent in self-determinism even as he tries to maintain the status quo of Gibil and help foreignors learn to overthrow the powers of their own gods.
Turtledove has been careful throughout the book to emulate the speech patterns which are used throughout Mesopotamian literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Although this pattern appears strange at times, it is similar enough to modern American patterns that it only occasionally intrudes on the narrative, usually when the characters are at their most formal.
With Between the Rivers, Turtledove also returns to an area he has previously explored. In his novel Noninterference and the short stories which are compiled into it, Turtledove dealt with a primitive society which was found by human space travelers. The primitives mistook the humans for gods and Noninterference dealt with the consequences from the human's point of view. Between the Rivers can be seen as examining the same issues from the primitives' point of view.
Even more, Between the Rivers has grown out of the same ideas expounded by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) and first used as background in Turtledove's "Bluff" (Analog, 2/85). In fact, with only a few minor changes, Between the River could have been set in "Bluff"'s Land of Eighteen Cities a couple of generations after the short story took place. Both stories have ghosts who can speak as long as they are remembered and the gods give instructions to their followers. Tushratta, in "Bluff" begins to break with the gods, eventually becoming deaf to their commands. In Between the Rivers, Sharur can still hear the voice of Engibil on occasion, usually regretting these episodes. Another difference is that Turtledove gives an explanation for the gods and ghosts in "Bluff" while no explanation is given in Between the Rivers.
Between the Rivers covers ground familiar to readers of Turtledove's work, however it does so in a manner which is frequently fresh and inventive. If the characters could be a little more original, that is a small enough negative. Between the Rivers does a fantastic job of depicting a Mesopotamian culture and the elements of humanity breaking free from the rule of gods and superstition.
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