Review of The Breath of God by Harry Turtledove
The Breath of God
by Harry Turtledove
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I highly recommend you read my review of Beyond the Gap if you haven't already, since it will save me time if I don't have to reiterate all the points there that apply to The Breath of God as well. To recap: had fond memories of Turtledove, opinion of his steadily decreasing, this series is terrible, and I don't know why I've bothered.
The opening of The Breath of God foreshadows how deeply inadequate the book becomes by its end. For about the first ten pages, every second paragraph consists of an interjection of exposition to make sure that those who haven't read the first book can keep up with the proper terms and social dynamics. If there's anything good to say about Beyond the Gap, it's that its exposition is far more subtle than what happens at the beginning of The Breath of God. Still, I ignored it and read onward. Little did I know that this would be the least of my worries.
For a little while, this book was actually good, and it improved to the point that I considered it better than the first book by a fair measure—perhaps not three stars, but definitely two stars. I'll first explain what impressed me so much, and then I'm going to provide some spoilers that demonstrate why I lost all faith in this book before it was over.
Firstly, there's much more action in The Breath of God than there is in the first book. I don't want to be shallow and claim that a fantasy book must have action scenes in order to be good. However, in the setting that Turtledove has created, with the shadow of the Rulers falling over the Bizogots and Raumsdalia, the inaction on the part of the protagonists in Beyond the Gap irked me. In this book, there's many more skirmishes, retreats, victories—you name it. The protagonists win some and lose some, which makes for some balanced storytelling. None of the action sequences are too cumbersome or too long, and Turtledove capitalizes on the unique aspects of his creation: war mammoths! Oh yes. They are fearsome.
Secondly, for most of this book, there is no Gudrid. If you have read the first book, you'll know why this is a big relief.
Thirdly, while the narrative once again consists of a great deal of travelling and very little interesting development on the part of the characters or the plot, there's more variation. Instead of a long trek north beyond the Glacier followed by a long trek south followed by a long trek north, but not as far north, we get a long trek up the Glacier followed by a long trek down, then there's another trek south and finally a trek north. With fighting interspersed, it's easier to stomach. And at no point did I feel like I wanted to just stop reading, a sentiment all too familiar with Beyond the Gap.
So far the book seems tolerable, eh? Not great by any means, but something for the fantasy fan looking to relax. So what is the deal-breaker? As usual, it's characterization. The way Turtledove handles his characters in The Breath of God goes from bad to worse to unbelievable. This book moved me, but not in a profound way—it moved me to express my disbelief and my outrage over how unrealistically these characters behave.
There are plenty of minor examples, most of them toward the end of the book (hence why it seemed so good at the beginning). Once Hamnet (alternatively, "Count Hamnet" or "Hamnet Thyssen," since Turtledove can't seem to settle for just using Hamnet's first name and saving my nerves) and his party return to Nidaros, there's a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of nitwit guards, all of whom are programmed to say something like the following:
"What are you doing here?" . . . .
"Reporting to His Majesty," Hamnet answered. "I know more about what's going on in the Bizogot country than anybody he's talked to lately. I hope he'll listen to me, for the Empire's sake."
"But he's angry at you. Didn't you know that?" the guard said.
Some variation of this exchange, complete with rhetorical questions that end in "do you?" and query whether Hamnet is aware that the emperor is dissatisfied with him, populate the majority of the subsequent three pages. Also, Turtledove seems to think that having his characters state the obvious is the same as humour. All in all, this makes for very uninspiring dialogue.
All these minor problems with characterization pale in comparison to what I can only call the betrayal that occurs in chapter 14. A little background: prior to the first book, Hamnet's wife, Gudrid, left him for another man. She was malicious about it, so he spent most of Beyond the Gap nursing his emotional wound and thinking ill of women in general. He still managed to fall for Liv, a Bizogot shaman, and it looked like it was True Love. They're still happily together in The Breath of God, but now Hamnet becomes suspicious because Liv and Aulun, a Raumsdalian wizard, are spending so much time together. At first he thinks it's just shop talk, yet he can't help voicing his suspicions—which Liv promptly dismisses.
Then, out of the blue, he stumbles upon Liv and Aulun kissing. And she says:
"Don't be foolish, Hamnet," Liv said. "It's over. You know it is. It's been over for a while now. You know that, too. . . . You caused what you wanted to cure."
What a hackneyed breakup line: "It's been over for a while now." I shudder. Still, that's not what I found unforgivable. Simply put, I couldn't believe this was happening. And here Turtledove manages to demonstrate the difference between foreshadowing and justifying future events. I understand that Liv is claiming Hamnet pushed her away because of his overprotectiveness. That makes sense. Yet we suddenly go from Hamnet being suspicious to Liv leaving him, with no intermediate troubles or arguments beyond a few sparse discussions. If this was some sort of tactic to make me keep reading, it worked, because I was turning the pages as quickly as possible to see if some sort of spell was influencing their actions or if this was all just a feverish dream.
Worse still, everyone is OK with this sudden change in relationship status. At breakfast, Hamnet finds out that everyone else knows already. And none of them think it's a big deal. Ulric just recommends that Hamnet sleep with someone else.
So he does. Not immediately, but after a couple of chapters, he takes up with another wizard—this time a woman from the tribe of cannibals who live on top of the Glacier. And apparently, she makes him happy now.
It's a simple affliction, but I'm afraid it's incurable: The Breath of God is just so frustrating. Relationships between characters change based on authorial fiat, not on any logical chain of cause and effect. Characters are idiots to serve the plot or annoyingly obvious. All of these distractions woke the critic in me from his deep slumber, and I began paying more attention to how the book was written than the story itself (which is seldom good). It pains me to say this, but I actually liked some of The Sword of Truth books better than this book. The ostentatious caricature of collectivism called Emperor Jajang would be a welcome relief from the one-dimensional vacillating idiot this book calls Sigvat II.
This book's inconsistency is such a fatal flaw because it destroys the most important part of the experience, especially for a fantasy: suspension of disbelief. This act is always contingent on the author promising to create an internally consistent universe. And with unrealistic characters and uninspiring plotting, the universe of the Opening of the World trilogy just doesn't deserve my suspension of disbelief. The Breath of God sags, wheezes, and groans beneath the weight of its own implausibility.