Someone at a convention once told Harry Turtledove that they worried whenever a writer quit their day job. “So does the writer,” Turtledove said.
Before making the great leap himself, Dr. Turtledove (Ph.D. in Byzantine Studies from UCLA) used to be a technical writer. I can’t find anything recent online to see if he still keeps this schedule, but he used to maintain a very professional two and a half hours writing per day, 350 days per year, with much of the rest of the day dedicated to research and reading for his work. “If you wait for the Muse to strike,” he has said, “you will starve.”
For the Great Balticon Readathon, I’m jumping back to a collaborative work that he wrote back in 1999 with Dr. Judith Tarr, Household Gods. Tarr earned a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from Yale. What this collaboration means is that, certainly to a lay person such as yours truly, the world of Household Gods was absolutely convincing. Yet they managed, between them, to create this immersive experience while avoiding pedantry. They’re not just good historians: they’re good writers.
I spotted this book in hardback on the shelves of a small local library when it was still a fairly new title. I was an exhausted mother of a toddler, trying to find my way in a new neighborhood and a new life situation. The cover design caught me first. I missed reading speculative fiction, and that mode of thought. I was feeling isolated and, frankly, a little overwhelmed. So many day-to-day tasks were absolutely necessary … I was hesitant to check the book out. The description seemed improbable. I wasn’t sure I would like it, and my reading time was so precious.
I began the story impatient with the protagonist, who irritated me. Perhaps she was striking a little too close to home? (Although, for the record: my husband was never the jerk that hers was. I identified with the mommyhood, not the divorce.) I admit, I judged her harshly for her self-absorption. Then again, nobody else was looking out for her … who would if not she herself?
Then the story opened up, and I fell right in. I could hardly put the book down. I stayed up far too late so I could finish it. It turned out to be just exactly the book I needed to read at that time. So exactly that it made me consider having a look around to see if there weren’t some household icon lurking about through which interested deities were acting to bring my unspoken wishes…
Why did I like this book so much? Well, the accuracy of the history, to begin with. Not that I’d have enough knowledge to disagree on specific points, but the authors were so very confident and sure in their portrayal of daily life and larger events in 2nd century Carnuntum, that it never occurred to me to question them. Deft handling. This was not the result of casual scholarship, but consistently showed a real grasp of how that world worked, in detail and in larger scope. I never felt that I was being lectured at, but rather shown a particular time and place and its people.
Our protagonist, Nicole, after unexpectedly time-travelling, reacts much more realistically than such voyagers typically do. It was refreshing. Additionally, there was opportunity for character development. While I never really came to like Nicole, I greatly preferred her post-adventure self. The other characters in the book were individually interesting as well, and even the token shmuck ex-husband has a redeeming moment. Overall, though, the whole plot seems to exist as a frame for the vivid painting of life in history through a modern lens, and it’s brilliant at that job.
This book helped wake my brain up. I was muzzy with mundanities, and Turtledove and Tarr’s well-crafted volume reminded me both of the privilege of my daily situation (Hot water for showers! Laundry done by machine! My Very Own Bath!) and the larger world that reading and, in particular, speculative fiction, could hold open for me. So this volume will always hold a special place in my heart. And I will very confidently read more of Turtledove’s work. I am sure it will be well written, immersive, and that I’ll learn substantially about history. All very good things!