by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Gunpowder Empire is the first novel in "Crosstime Traffic," a young adult series by Harry Turtledove. The series plays with an idea which has frequently been used, by authors such as Poul Anderson and Robert Silverberg, namely the theory that there are multiple worlds with similar histories which can be reached. In This case, Turtledove's two main characters, Amanda and Jeremy Solter, teenagers from a late twenty-first century Los Angeles, find themselves in a world in which history diverged in the time of the early Caesars and the Roman Empire never fell.
During summer vacation, the two Solters join their parents on a trade mission to Agrippan Roman Polisso, a Roman village in what would be Romania. When their mother begins to suffer from stomach cramps, their father takes her back to their own world for medical treatment and a break in the linkage occurs, stranding the two teenagers in Polisso just as the barbarous Lietuvans prepare to lay siege to the city. Jeremy and Amanda must take on the role of traders while keeping the local authorities from examining their business dealings too closely.
Turtledove's attention to historical detail is excellent as his readers have come to expect. Polisso is not quite the Roman empire of our own world, having had several additional centuries to diverge from the Rome we expect. Turtledove's extrapolation, while arguable, is also defensible, just as the Solters hope Polisso is. Occasionally, he falls into the trap of repetition, reminding the reader of thoughts and actions which shouldn't be necessary in a book of this length.
His characters, while likeable, do not show a tremendous amount of growth. Both Jeremy and Amanda begin the book exceptionally capable, and they continue to demonstrate their abilities throughout the book. Furthermore, they don't seem to have the proper amount of discontent for teenagers, happily accepting their exile from their friends over the summer and being forced to work closely with their parents. The novel would have worked better if Turtledove had elected to show more personal growth for the characters as they came to terms with their exile, especially as their situation worsened.
Although billed as the first volume of a series, Gunpowder Empire is a completely self-contained novel. In fact, the reader is left to speculate as to whether future volumes will follow the same characters, or perhaps Jeremy's friend Michael Fujikawa, who spent the summer in a Japanese dominated world. If Turtledove does follow the Solters, the reader must wonder if they'll be sent back to Agrippan Polisso or some other alternate. In any event, Turtledove does leave open several possibilities.
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