Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Justinian was the first straight historical novel from the mind of SF author Harry Turtledove. The novel sold well enough that Turtledove, again writing under the pseudonym “H.N. Turteltaub” has published a second historical novel, Over the Wine-Dark Sea, which promises to be only the first in a series of novels about two Rhodian cousins living in the fourth century BCE.
Sailing from Rhodes of the merchant ship Aphrodite with a cargo of wine, silks and peafowl, the cousins Menedemos and Sostrates provide a reader with a tour of Greece and Italy in the year 310 BCE. This period allows Turteltaub to depict both the internecine squabbling of the successors to Alexander the Great and the rise of Rome during the period of the Second Samnite War. With all the conflict Turteltaub can draw upon, it is surprising how little combat Menedemos and Sostrates experience. Rather than focus his attention of the martial activities, Turteltaub provides a glimpse into Hellenic culture.
The two major characters, between whom the viewpoint alternates throughout the novel, are very different from each other. Menedemos is always looking for physical gratification, although he understands the meaning of duty and performs admirably as the captain of the Aphrodite. His cousin is given over to more intellectual pursuits, reciting from Thucydides and Herodotus and trying to understand how an historian thinks. Although the men are only shown in a familial setting for short periods at the beginning and end of the novel, it is also clear that their family lives are as different as their personalities. What doesn’t ring true about their relationship is how quickly they bristle at each other and feel the need to walk softly in each others’ presence despite their closeness.
Over the Wine-Dark Sea takes its time in getting started, and maintains its leisurely pace throughout. The trade mission the Aphrodite is on seems to be a reason to provide a tour of the Mediterranean world from Rhodes to Pompeii and Syracuse, but there is little sense of purpose aside from that. Fortunately, Turteltaub is able to bring to life the various cities his two sailors meet, although in many cases it would be nice if they could have spent more time exploring the cities to give a better feel for the differences between settled Greek cities, Greek colonies and Roman cities on the rise.
Throughout the novel, Greek concepts and phrases are scattered. Although their meaning is usually apparent from the context, there are a few places where context fails and the reader just has to accept the term without knowing exactly what is meant. At other times, even the context isn’t enough, since the importance of the concept is merely hinted at without an explanation for its importance, which, of course, the characters fully understand, but the reader may not.
For all its lack of driving plot, Over the Wine-Dark Sea is a compelling story which presents a look at the culture of Greece at a time when it still held the reins of power in the Mediterranean, although its potential successors were already visible throughout the region. Turtledove's knowledge of the period and his ability to present it to the reader without seeming to preach further heighten the appeal of the book.
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