Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr’s Household Gods is a well-written book that always annoys the heck out of me. I thought about it after finishing Them Bones and wondering what other stories have time travel that don’t achieve anything.
Nicole Gunther-Perrin is a lawyer in Los Angeles, and she’s the most irritating person you could ever spend a whole book with. Usually when fans call people “mundanes” in a sneering way it makes me recoil, but in Nicole we have a character who truly is mundane, or even a caricature of a mundane. She has no curiosity, no education (about anything other than her specialty, law), no idea how anything works, and poor social skills. Worst of all she’s so self-centered you can hardly escape her gravity well.
She needs to be like that for the plot to work—divorced with two little kids, passed over for promotion, she prays to the Roman gods Liber and Libera, about whom she knows essentially nothing beyond their names, for them to send her back to their time. They kindly do, sending her back to the body of an ancestress, Umma, in Carnuntum on the borders of the Roman Empire in the time of Marcus Aurelius. There, instead of behaving like any other protagonist of this kind of novel, she freaks out at the lice, disease, death, invasions, and sexism, and longs to be back in California. In some ways, yes, it’s refreshing to have a time travel book where the protagonist doesn’t know everything about history and technology and invent ninety-eight things and save the day, but did it have to be the one where the protagonist is a girl?
The good thing about this book is the background. Nicole finds herself in the body of Umma, a widowed tavern-keeper in Roman Carnuntum. She’s given the ability to speak Latin, but nothing else. She has to come with Umma’s life and responsibilities and problems. Carnuntum feels real in every detail, the baths, the tavern, the lives and relationships and attitudes of the other characters. As a story about how people lived at the edge of the Roman Empire, it’s brilliant. That’s why I kept reading it the first time and why I have re-read it since. (The rest of it is so good that I tend to forget between times just how annoying Nicole is.) T. Calidius Severus the dyer, his son Caius, Julia the slave who is afraid to be freed, Umma’s children, her brother, her neighbours, even Marcus Aurelius—they’re all wonderfully real, and especially nice to spend time with because they’re not Nicole.
The problem with it is that ignorant selfish Nicole constantly gets in the way with her ridiculous attitudes. She sees a legionary soldier and thinks, “Didn’t Rome have a Vietnam to teach them about the horrors of war?” She has no idea that while in her own time there’s a glass ceiling, in the time she’s come to women are legally chattels of men. Her father was an alcoholic, so she’s horrified to see people drinking wine. I’d like the book more if I didn’t feel that the entire novel is set up for her to be as ignorant and annoying as possible and then Learn A Lesson. This is a personal fulfillment story, and indeed she learns a lesson and is personally fulfilled, but I still want to kick her. Some of the lessons she learns—about the army protecting the town, about wine being safer than water, about science and technology making the world safer and more equal—are obvious. Some others, such as the bit about the benefits of smacking children, are odder, by which I mean that I don’t agree.
Mild spoilers ahead. Though mostly they’re the kind of spoiler I got for Card’s Alvin Maker books when I discovered from external sources that William Henry Harrison was elected president and then died…
The account of the pestilence and the invasion and the famine are vivid and individual. This is the kind of writing that’s very difficult to do well, and Tarr and Turtledove carry it off perfectly—these are the kind of close up personal views of history happening that make it seem real. The same goes for the encounter with Marcus Aurelius, with his famous personal integrity. This is the kind of encounter with a “celebrity” that often weights a story in the wrong way, but here it’s excellent.
Now a couple of specific spoilers, but still fairly mild ones:
The thing about Nicole that I think best sums her up is that at the end of the book, when she is back in California, she goes into a bookshop to check whether she can really read Latin or whether the whole thing was a hallucination. She finds she can really read Latin. Then she goes out of the bookshop again. There she is, with the ability to look up the actual history and find out what happened next to people she saw what was for her literally yesterday, a bookshop where Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is very likely available, and she just walks out. This is typical of her whole attitude, even after the authors have piled calamities on her so that she has learned to thank people, and realize how nice hot showers, and doctors, and regular meals can be.
I remember a friend of mine complaining about Thomas Covenant, “Any of us would give our right arms to be in the Land, and he goes about moaning and he won’t even believe that it’s real.” That’s my exact problem with Nicole—she’s had this marvellous opportunity and there she is so passive and ignorant that I want to kick her out of the way and do it myself and prove that women can be Martin Padway and not all Nicole Gunther-Perrin. (Also, I have had headlice. They’re not that bad.)
We never learn what happened to Umma—she wasn’t in Nicole’s body, so where was she? Is she going to wake up the next morning in the lumpy bed with no memories of the last six months? Or what? I’d really have liked a hint. Also, I’d have liked a companion volume of “Umma spends six months in Nicole’s life” because I bet she would have coped just fine, though she might not have wanted to go home again.
The world really is excellent. The history is accurate, and the daily life is as accurate as possible. If you can put up with Nicole, it’s terrific.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.