by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove 



508pp/$24.95/September 1999

Household Gods
Cover by Cynthia von Buhler

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Sixty years after L. Sprague de Camp published Lest Darkness Fall, and 110 years after Mark Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove have joined forces to provide a tour-de-force response with their new novel Household Gods.  While de Camp and Twain sent back historically- and mechanically- minded individuals, Tarr and Turtledove have sent back a female Los Angeles attorney who has very little historical background.

The novel opens on one of the worst days in Nicole Gunther-Perrin’s life.  Her daycare provider leaves for Mexico, her ex-husband and his girlfriend vanish to Cancun, and she is denied a partnership in her law firm.  When her daughter comes down with the fly, Nicole sees the statues of the Roman gods Liber and Libera which she acquired during her honeymoon in Austria and begs to be sent to a simpler time.  Naturally, the gods acquiesce.

Of course, the late second century is hardly the simpler time Nicole is looking for.  She finds herself inhabiting the body of Umma, a widowed tavern-keeper who was one of Nicole’s own ancestors.  In addition to dealing with Umma’s everyday cares, Nicole must try to figure out all the things Umma would naturally know.  Nicole also finds that the second century was every bit as sexist and annoying as the twentieth century.

Much of the novel gives the feel of a travelogue to the Roman frontier during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180).  The authors have managed to make the world come alive and, while the character relationships are definitely secondary to Nicole’s reactions to her new world, they are interesting enough to maintain the reader’s attention.

While Nicole is attempting to cope with her new situation, she does consider the possibility of introducing new ideas and inventions to her society, but quickly realizes that she doesn’t really know how things work well enough to introduce them.  Furthermore, and more importantly, her role in society as a tavernkeeper, and particularly a female tavernkeeper, doesn’t place her in a position to introduce the changes.

Nicole's character is handled exceptionally well, and, while the relationships aren't necessarily strong, Tarr and Turtledove do manage to portray several strong and likable support characters, ranging from Julia, Umma's slave, to Titus Calidius Severus, the dyer and fuller with the shop across from Umma's tavern.

The most difficult thing Nicole-as-Umma has to deal with are the differences in attitude which she comes across in her travel through time.  Slavery, beating children, and other attitudes which she would find abhorrent in twentieth-century America, are suddenly the norm. While de Camp and Twain's characters were always reasonably in control over their fate and their surroundings, Nicole must learn that being from the twentieth century does not confer any special status to her in the second century. Particularly interesting is the way Nicole, a Catholic, handles the status of her fledgling Church.

Nicole learns that attitudes are as important to different periods as anything else, and it is the attitudes which cause her the greatest problem.  This is a lesson which many authors need to learn and the reason why so many historical novels don't seem quite right.  Fortunately, Tarr and Turtledove understand the differences between living in second century Rome and twentieth century Los Angeles and they manage to present this differences in an entertaining manner.

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