NESFA Members' Reviews

Household Gods

by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove

Tor, 1999, ISBN 0-312-86487-6

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

Nicole Gunther-Perrin is having the day from hell. Her ex-husband is behind on child-support payments. There's an accident on the highway on the way to her children's daycare, making her late. Her children's daycare provider informs her that her mother is dying and she needs to go home to Mexico--and she's leaving tomorrow. This is the last day she will take the children. Nicole gets to work a half hour late, and briefly, things seem to be looking up. She's a lawyer, an associate in a moderately good firm, and she meets in the parking lot another associate, with whom she has just finished in important project. He tells her he's just been made a partner, that the senior partner wants to see her, too, and should he congratulate her now or later? Later, she says.

The senior partner tells her there was only one partnership slot available, and Mr. Ogarkov (her erstwhile project partner) was judged to be the more qualified of the two.

Her day goes downhill from there. By the end of it, it makes perfect sense that she utters a plaintive prayer to the votive plaque on her bedside table, to be taken to a time that's simpler, less sexist, less unfair. It might seem a bit more surprising when one realizes that it's a second-century A.D. Roman votive plaque to the gods Liber and Libera, and she thinks their time is a simpler, fairer, less sexist time. She must have slept through ancient history--or more likely, avoided taking any.

Nicole wakes up the next morning in the body of Umma, a distant ancestor of hers, who is a tavernkeeper in second-century A.D. Carnuntum, and Tarr and Turtledove spare her nothing. Umma has two children; Nicole is appalled at the idea of young children (ages approximately four and eight) drinking wine, even watered wine. Her father was an abusive alcoholic; neither she nor the children will drink wine. This lasts less than twenty-four hours, of course, as Nicole discovers why everyone, including children, drinks wine rather than water. She quickly discovers that Umma's servant, Julia, is a slave, not an employee--and in order for her to legally, formally manumit Julia, she needs the approval of Umma's brother--who is not inclined to give it. She has arrived in Carnuntum only a few months ahead of measles, and invading Germans, and reconquering Roman legions, and other unpleasantnesses. Umma even has a bad tooth, which Nicole eventually has to have pulled.

Despite her sometimes dippily politically-correct ideas, Nicole really is tough and smart, and sometimes is able to benefit herself and others by not having the same misconceptions as the second-century Romans she's now surrounded by. And despite how laughable some of this can sound recited cold, Tarr and Turtledove really do an excellent job with the collision between Nicole's twentieth-century assumptions and the painful reality of second-century Carnuntum, where, even when she's right, she can't prove it to anyone. Strongly recommended.

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