Harry Turtledove is known for his alternate history science fiction epics like Guns of the South, in which South African radicals provide the Confederate army with automatic weapons, changing the outcome of the Civil War. Judith Tarr mixes fantasy with history in her epics about ancient Egypt, medieval England, and other locales. Together these two authors have collaborated on a long, dense novel of time travel to the Roman Empire that, while problematic in some ways, I had a hard time putting down.
Nicole Gunther-Perrin is a very modern woman – an L.A. lawyer juggling her flagging career, exhausting single parenthood, and an ex-husband more interested in his new honey than in paying child support. At the end of her very worst day yet, Nicole makes a fervent wish to live in a simpler time. And the whimsical Roman gods grant her wish, sending her modern-day spirit into the body of her genetic ancestor, Umma. Umma is a widowed tavernkeeper in Carnuntum, an outpost town of the 2nd century Roman Empire.
I had a lot of problems with Nicole. My partner kept telling me, “You’re snorting at your book again.” I kept snorting because Nicole was unbelievably clueless about the historical time she wanted to escape into. For no apparent reason, she thought it would be more egalitarian and wonderful than her modern day life. Obviously, she’s horribly wrong and finds out just how wrong throughout the course of the book. I also found it hard to stomach her California sensibilities in the Roman setting – she nearly kills her whole family and herself with her first-day insistence that everyone drink water instead of wine.
What kept me reading through the snorts was the wonderful way that ancient Roman life comes to, well, life in this book. Through Nicole’s everyday travails in trying to get by and survive as Umma, as well as major events such as plague and war, I got a concrete sense of what life could have been like in that time and place. The sights, sounds, and most of all (for good or bad) the smells come to life in the story. I felt like I was learning real history, in a relatively painless and satisfying way.
Household Gods is not a romance, although Nicole eventually takes up with a local man in her town (or, more accurately, resumes Umma’s relationship with him). There aren’t really any happy ever afters; this book is more about seizing what joy there is when life is hard and often dramatically cut short. The book is over-long and at times the plot drags, and Nicole continues earning snorts all the way to the end of the story, but the sense of history made this a very satisfying read for me nonetheless. The surest sign that a book has made an impact on me is that it stays on my mind in the days and weeks after I finish it. Household Gods has had distinct staying power as I compare our own uncertain times to life in the 2nd century, and feel profoundly grateful to be where I am.