by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove
Review by Sarah-Wade Smith
I am tempted to send this book to everyone I know who whines about how rough their life is. Yes, I always knew life under primititive conditions was rough, but that was intellectual. This book kind of puts it into a gut feeling.
Consider our protagonist, Nicole Perrin, a stuggling corporate lawyer and divorced mother of two in LA. She is having the day from Purgatory. Her child support checks are late again because her ex is vacationing in Cancun. She not only has to drive an hour out of her way to get the kids to day care, but her provider just notified her that she is going out of business, effective today, No, she really doesn't know where Nicole can take the kids tomorrow. She's late for work and finds out that she has just been passed over for the promotion she really was working so hard for in favor of a male attorney she honestly believes is not as good as her.
Just before she falls asleep, she looks at a portrait of the Roman gods of the household, Liber and Libera, and earnestly prays they get her out of this torment. Say, a nice trip to the wonderful hypocracy free Roman empire. Somehow her earnest prayer tickles the long-unworshipped dieties' fancy and...remember that old proverb about being careful what you wish for?
So, Nicole awakes next morning in the body of her distant ancestor Umma in the colony of Carnuntum on the Danube in the reign of Marcus Aurelius Augustus. Now she's having the day from hell!
To start with, there are the lavatory arrangements: a earthenware jug under her bed, already stuffed with last night's meal. And since most of the rest of the town uses the same system....well, it's not a nice place to have a nose.
Then there is breakfast, which turns out to be gritty whole grain bread moistened with olive oil and washed down with watered ...wine?! The daughter of an alcoholic, Nicole is death on anything with alcohol in it. Finding out that she now owns a bar, and that not only she, but her (or rather Umma's) eight and five year olds are expected to drink the wine is, well, horrifiying. And her efforts to convince others that they should drink nice heathy water only make them worry that's she's crazy. And a prompt attack of Montezuma's revenge soon shows her why. Pass the diluted wine, please.
Then there is the schock of finding out that she doesn't just employ her housekeeper/bartender, Julia; she owns her. As in slavery. Suggesting that she might free Julia is enough to infuriate Umma's brother. That's a lot of his good money Umma is about to throw away. And then there is the discovery that not only is Umma not a Christian, but around Carnuntum the local pagan majority regards Christians as about one step below communists.
And this is day one. She still hasn't had to deal with Umma's boyfriend, the army vet who runs a fullering business that uses stale urine, lots of stale urine; who thinks watching people get executed in the arena is good, clean fun and who happens to be about the best lover, kind, considerate and passionate, that Nicole has ever known.
She hasn't had to deal with the plague either. Or the toothache. Or the hordes of German barbarians who are about to sweep over the wall.
Somehow Nicole has to manage to survive in a very alien world where life is much harder and a woman's life in particular much less valued than she is used to.
In the process, she is learning a few skills that just might help her to cope back home...if she can ever convince the household gods to send back there, that is.
I've often enjoyed Turtledove's alternative history fiction, especially his "The Confederacy Won" series. I haven't read anything by Judith Tarr before, but this book certainly serves as a good recomendation. If Turtledove's knowledge of history and eye for the details are very much in evidence, I suspect it is Tarr's contribution that makes Nicole such a fully fledged character. The book may be a tad on the long side, but most of it is a wonderful read set a world that you might not want to visit, but is filled with folks you'll really wish you knew in real life.
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