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Edited by Harry Turtledove & Noreen Doyle



368pp/$25.95/May 2004

First Heroes

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Harry Turtledove and Noreen Doyle have collected fourteen tales set in the Bronze Age to create The First Heroes.  Although the most famous events and locations for this period are the siege of Troy and the rise of Mesopotamia, the authors have wandered far afield to bring stories of mythological beings, Iceland, the New World, and time travelers to form a broad view of the period.

The collection begins with Gene Wolfe's “The Lost Pilgrim,” an odyssey of sorts with a misplaced time traveler journeying with the Argonauts.  Wolfe’s version of the ancient world is interesting and, while it follows the outline of the traditional legend, he adds various layers to it, including the mystery of his protagonist, known only as Pilgrim.  Although it is clear that Pilgrim was trying to reach a different place, it isn’t clear until near the end what that place was and Wolfe brings the story to an intriguing, if horrifying, conclusion.

Brenda Clough takes the reader to Bronze Age China in “How the Bells Came from Yang to Hubei.”  While many of the stories dealing with weaponry look at the addition of tin to copper to create Bronze, Clough’s characters are given the task of making a series of bells which will bring death to their enemies.  The efficacy of the bells as weapons is left up in the air, but the primary purpose of the story is looking at the hopes and beliefs of the people of the period who are discovering a new technology and looking into the potential of that technology.

One of the leading advances in the science of war during the Bronze Age was the introduction of chariots.  Judith Tarr, takes a look at the vehicle’s divine origin in “The God of Chariots.”  Tarr includes a delightful ambiguity concerning the god’s actual divinity while at the same time she gives an indication of the way the people of Mesopotamia may have seen their gods and the god’s avatars on earth.  The interplay between divine and royal, especially, is handled quite well in the story.

Harry Turtledove presents an interesting premise in “The Horse of Bronze,” although there is little plot to his story.  He postulates a Bronze Age in which the creatures of mythology populate the Earth.  Opening with a great battle between sphinxes and centaurs, he follows the centaurs on their voyage out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic Ocean in search of the fabled Tin Isle.  En route, they must overcome other legendary creatures and forces of nature until they reach the Tin Isle and discover why their source of tin has dried up, and also learn of the disappearance of the various creatures which populate the island.  In the end, “The Horse of Bronze” is a story of a world in transition, marred by the characters’ awareness of that transition and a lack of a sense of melancholy.

The Bronze Age was a period in which the gods and humans were believed to have related closely to each other.  Josepha Sherman’s Hupasiya is reasonably happy in his role as a farmer in “A Hero for the Gods” when he finds himself the unwanting recipient of the attention of a local goddess who desires his services to defeat a new and powerful deity.  Sherman presents Hupasiya with the choice between immortality and his old life as a farmer.

“Blood Wolf” is a short story set in S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket series.  Focusing on Kreuha, a young barbarian, who has made his way to the Nantucketer’s colony on England, where he hopes to find fame and fortune, instead, Stirling tells the story of a country bumpkin come to the big city.  Focusing on Kreuha and social conflict instead of the technological ones, Stirling’s story, which could have been set in any time period, works quite well.

Co-editor Noreen Doyle contributed the story “Ankhtifi the Brave Is Dying” to the book.  The story, about a once great man at the end of his life, appears to be heading for a nostalgic tone, which is successful in the portions dealing with the end of Ankhtifi’s life, but the character as shown in his prime is nowhere near as sympathetic as he is as an older man, thereby undercutting the sense of nostalgia the reader feels.

Religion played an important part in the Bronze Age and also features in many of the stories.  Katharine Kerr and Debra Doyle examine the ritual of  Greek oracles in “The God Voice,” set in the aftermath of Virgil’s Aeneid.  The story focuses on the interactions between regular humans and those who are believed to be able to speak to the gods.  While interesting in concept, the authors don’t quite manage to make the story convincing.

Karen Jordan Allen reminds readers that the Bronze Age was not concurrent over the entire world with  “Orqo Afloat on the Willkamayu,” which tells the story of a Bronze Age hero in the lands of the Incas.  Orqo is the heir apparent to his father.  The story is a mixture of flashbacks of a more innocent relationship between Orqo and his half brother, Kusi, and of the present, when the two appear to be engaged in a civil war to succeed their father.  The story jumps back and forth, but in so doing it heightens the tension of what the reader already knows, notably that there was a falling out between brothers.  Allen is able to get the reader to wonder how the falling out occurred and, more importantly, what its eventual resolution would be.

The stories from the Bronze Age which survive are in the form of epic poetry, and Larry Hammer tries his hand at the form with “The Myrmidons,” about the creation of the warriors by that name and Ovid’s etymology for the name.  Although some readers may shy away from the work because of its poetic form, Hammer has written a piece which is resounding and humorous at the same time.

Upon first reading, Gregory Feeley’s “Giliad” appears rather disjointed as he tries to combine the beta-testing of a new computer game, writing a novel, life in Mesopotamia, and the attacks of September 11 into a coherent entity.  The story stands up to later readings much better as the reader can approach Feeley’s writing with an understanding of what he is trying to do and where he is going, which allows the reader to see how the disparate pieces of the story fit together.

Just as Karen Jordan Allen reminded readers that the Bronze Age did not occur concurrently throughout the world, Laura Frankos reminds the readers that the cultures were not all the civilized ones represented by Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece.  “The Sea Mother’s Gift” is set on the distant shores of Scotland, where the inhabitants view themselves as modern as any of those living under the aforementioned empires.  Frankos’s story is one which is a neat combination of natural events and the superstitions which were so important to the period.

One of the seminal events of the Bronze Age was the Trojan War, and naturally Homer’s epic presents the opportunity for exploration.  Lois Tilton approaches the war from the opposite direction, coming from Persia instead of Greek in “The Matter of the Ahhiyans.” Tilton sends a Persian diplomat to Troy to learn whether the Greeks, or Ahhiyans, are attacking Troy for their own legitimate purposes or if the attacks indicate the opening feints in a war against the Persians.  Tilton makes the war more human and less heroic, presenting it in a broader political context than is generally done.

The First Heroes ends with what appears to be Poul Anderson's last story, "The Bog Sword."  Forming bookends with Wolfe's "The Lost Pilgrim," both stories feature a time travel.  While many of the stories in the book deal with the end of the Copper Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age, Anderson’s deals with the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age.  His Northern characters must deal with many of the same issues that confronted the Southern characters of other stories as they deal with the cultural shift shown most obviously in the field of weaponry.  The story works well, although the time travel component seems a bit extraneous.

Gene Wolfe The Lost Pilgrim
Brenda Clough How the Bells Came from Yang to Hubei
Judith Tarr The God of Chariots
Harry Turtledove The Horse of Bronze
Josepha Sherman A Hero for the Gods
S.M. Stirling Blood Wolf
Noreen Doyle Ankhtifi the Brave Is Dying
Katharine Kerr & Debra Doyle The God Voice
Karen Jordan Allen Orqo Afloat on the Willkamayu
Larry Hammer The Myrmidons
Gregory Feeley Giliad
Laura Frankos The Sea Mother’s Gift
Lois Tilton The Matter of the Ahhiyans
Poul Anderson The Bog Sword

Purchase this book in hardcover from Amazon Books.

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