I have to admit that I'm not a Harry Turtledove connoisseur. I read a couple of his books when I was younger and have somehow retained romantic memories of how great a writer he was. This has motivated me to go back and read his oeuvre. I started with this series more by coincidence than anything: I noticed The Breath of God on my library's New Books shelf and took out both it and this book. Unfortunately, Beyond the Gap didn't live up to my expectations, and now I'm wondering if my fond memories of Turtledove are faulty.
The premise is interesting enough. To the north, a vast Glacier blocks any further travel—until a Gap opens up, through which a barbarian Bizogot by the name of Trasamund discovers that there's a world beyond the Glacier. And there are people in it, people who call themselves the Rulers and have a serious desire to invade every land they can and subjugate the people—whom they view as lesser animals or vermin—in those lands. Aside from Trasamund, most of our protagonists come from the more "civilized" empire to the south, Raumsdalia, which isn't in as much danger from the mammoth-riding Rulers—yet.
Like I said, the premise is cool. Turtledove has mixed elements of "traditional" medieval fantasy with Iron Age society and Ice Age climate. It was nice to see a quest-style, travel-based plot where the characters had to deal with such problems as lice, bed bugs, the sparse food in the northern lands, and the lack of wood. Aside from the somewhat interesting setting, however, Beyond the Gap does very little to make itself entertaining.
Take the Rulers, for instance. There's nothing really unique about them. Culturally they're distinct from the rough Bizogots and avaricious Raumsdalians; I'll give Turtledove that. But they're just the stock foreign invaders doped up on a manifest destiny. I can't help but feel that Turtledove took something with great potential, the idea of a gap in this great, impenetrable Glacier, and somehow made it feel … boring. Ordinary. Just another fantasy story with masculine heroes and evil invaders. There's so much he could have done with the land beyond the Glacier, so many things he could have chosen to populate it, and he chose what was perhaps the least interesting.
Not that we would ever know, for we spend precious little time in the land beyond the Glacier. It takes more than half the book to get there, and then when our protagonists arrive, they meet the Rulers, have dinner, and are promptly shown the way back to the Gap. The rest of the book consists of the group going south back to Raumsdalia, then coming back north toward the Gap. Following me? The long journey to the north the first time comes with a promise that we'll get to see something interesting beyond the Glacier. In my opinion, the Rulers don't live up to that promise. Even if they did, it doesn't justify the repetitive travel that comprises most of the second half of the book. Turtledove's characters spend most of their time talking and travelling and very little time actually doing something, probably because he's made the Rulers such a formidable threat that he can't have a group of five people beat them. That would, admittedly, be zany.
This roundabout plotting would be forgivable if we had some interesting character development to go with it. There is character development, but it's very tame and usually simmers rather than coming to a boil. The main character, Hamnet Thyssen, is obsessed with his adulterous wife (until he falls for a Bizogot shaman). She happens to be married to a scholar going on this quest up north, and she decides to come along just to torment Hamnet. Most of the relationship issues in the rest of the book centre around how horrible this woman, Gudrid, is to everyone, even the men who sleep with her. Apparently she wants only attention and acknowledgement of how much more attractive she is than other women, especially from her ex-husband, for some reason. Instead of shutting her up, however, Hamnet just banters with her in not-very-witty moments. If there's one reason to enjoy his relationship with Liv, it's that he finally feels good enough to begin moving past Gudrid. Most readers will have started this process several hundred pages before then and sigh with relief when Hamnet catches up.
Rather than constructing plausible reasons for ignoring the threat of the Rulers, Turtledove just breaks one of his characters, Sigvat the Emperor, turning him from discerning ruler into an idiot who cares more about sleeping with Gudrid than paying attention to possible threats from the north. So what does he do when Hamnet decides to go north and help the Bizogots organize a defence? Send an "imperial order" to recall Hamnet, an order that Hamnet eagerly ignores. The only duel in this book is a fistfight between Trasamund and a Ruler—and toward the end, we get a little bit of combat between the Bizogots and some Rulers. Other than this, there's plenty of talk about fighting, and Hamnet likes to mention he killed one of Gudrid's lovers in a duel, but very little fighting. I'm not a bloodthirsty person by nature, but if I ever thought a fantasy book without fighting would be interesting, Beyond the Gap has convinced me otherwise.
This is just bad, lazy storytelling. The characters and cultures and climates of Beyond the Gap are very well differentiated from each other. I like that Hamnet's noble and strong, Ulric's witty and wily, Trasamund's boastful but fair, etc. But everything is so bland. The conflicts are unremarkable, and the stakes, while high, never really seem to materialize until the very end of the book.
There's an oh-so-helpful blurb on the front cover from Publishers Weekly: "Vivid!" I'm wondering if they stuck to one word because of space limitations or because any specificity would belie the compliment. The only "vivid" thing that comes to mind are the relentless references to sex, adultery, and more sex. Every second page is, "the Bizogots often have sex in the same tent as others" or "Gudrid loved to spread her legs for men," etc. Meanwhile, all I'm thinking is, "And I don't really care. Can we return to the story now, please?" And the book replies, "No. Screw you, I'm going to talk at length about how Hamnet feels wounded by Gudrid's betrayal!" And I say, "Well fine then. I'm going to give you a poor review on Goodreads."
And then book tries to eat me, and I remind it that it is made of paper and I am made of opposable thumbs and digital watches, the former of which are great for closing the book and throwing it across the room. (Digital watches are just neat.)
Anyway, I digress. I did not enjoy this book. It is like an unflavoured meal: the structure and maybe even the nutrients are there, but without the spices and herbs to give it flavour, it's tasteless and hard to get down. Then again, I haven't tried roasting it over a dung fire, which the Bizogots claim will infuse food with a "unique taste." Not that I'm advocating book-burning, mind you. That would be silly (not to mention a bad idea in my case, since this is a library book). If you happen to own a copy, do the sensible thing and sell it to a used bookstore so you can profit from somebody else's poor taste.