Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Given the title Thessalonica, and Harry Turtledove's penchant for alternate history, a reader can be forgiven for assuming that this novel is of that subgenre. One glance at the Darrell K. Sweet cover will disvow the reader of this thought. In a way, I suppose it is alternate history, in much the same way Turtledove's Case of the Toxic Spell Dump is alternate history. Thessalonica is set in the eponymous city in the seventh century. As Christianity is gaining strength, the spirits of the Greeks are being driven from their lands. The invasion is multipartite, however, since the Alars and Slavs are also invading the Hellenistic world.
This is ground Turtledove has covered several times, most recently in King of the North, although Thessalonica seems to owe more to Turtledove's Case of the Toxic Spell Dump. In fact, it owes so much to the latter novel, it almost seems as if it should be as pun-laden as that book. It isn't, however, which takes a while to get used to, especially considering the aforementioned Sweet cover which has a tendency to remind the reader of Xanth novels (the blue satyr on the cover doesn't help, either).
I have several quibbles with Thessalonica, some of them fair, others, perhaps not. Naming the book after the ancient city, I might be forgiven if I were to expect the city to play a more important role in the novel than it does. Certainly, nearly all of the action takes place within and on the city walls as the Thessalonican militia must stave off a seige of Avars and Slavs, however, there is little feel of location in the novel. Rather than being set in Thessalonica, it could have been set in any other Romano-Grecian city of the seventh century. The fact that Turtledove sets the novel during a siege also means that very little actually occurs during the novel. The main character, George the shoemaker, and his cohorts, continuously make their rounds between tavern, home and city walls, every couple of chapters having to fend off a barbarian attack, either physical or magical. Like war, moments of excitement surrounded by long periods of boredom.
In addition to the general plot of the siege, Turtledove drops in a variety of subplots, ranging from the nobleman Menas' intense dislike for George to George's daughter, Sophia, pursuing Constantine, son of Leo the potter. However, the characters Turtledove portrays are mere caricatures rather than fully drawn out characters. Unfortunately, they aren't particularly interesting caricatures. Even the supernatural creatures who populate the wilderness outside Thessalonica, centaurs and satyrs trying to maintain an ever-weakening hold on their ancestral home, are not particularly interesting.
I mentioned that this book had gave the feel that it should be as pun-laden as The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump. For the most part, however, Turtledove avoided the desire to incorporate puns (or I missed them entirely.) When he finally succumbs to temptation, sparked by a Beatles joke about 275 pages in, he does so in a very distracting manner. . . if you are a Beatles fan and know their songs. The two pages of quotes from Beatles songs probably should have been left out.
Obviously, this is not a Harry Turtledove novel which I would recommend to any except the most die-hard Turtledove afficienado. It filled a brief void between the last of the Worldwar novels and the next novel in the Time of Trouble series, but that's about all.
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