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A quest beyond the ice,
This review is from: Beyond the Gap (Opening of the World) (Mass Market Paperback)
Turtledove, called by many the master of alternate history, here imagines a world in which either the Ice Age lasted longer than it did in our world or humanity achieved civilization at an earlier point. (Mammoths, woolly rhinosceri, glyptodonts and giant sloths are all mentioned as being in existence.) Nidaris, which began as "a mammoth hunters' camp at the edge of the great Glacier," is now the capitol of the Raumsdalian Empire, which, having itself "[torn] the meat from the bones of the empire that preceded [it]," now lives by trade and agriculture (farming is "possible through most of it, though its northern reaches lay beyond the limits of agriculture"), has literacy, and can even support "barristers, "geomters," and "surveyors" and describe its women as "pampered." Though the Glacier has steadily retreated northward over the life of the Empire, it remains a distant presence from which the bitter north wind known as the Breath of God comes every year. Then Trasamund, a jarl (chieftain) of the Three Tusk Clan of the nomadic blond Bizogots, comes to see the Emperor with word that the unthinkable has occurred: a gap has opened up in the Glacier, and beyond are new lands, new animals, perhaps new peoples, and possibly even the legendary Golden Shrine. The Emperor summons one of his nobles, the melancholy Hamnet Thyssen, from his "castle on the edge of nowhere," and bids him lead (or more accurately co-lead, since of course Trasamund will have to go along to show the way to the Gap, and Bizogots don't take kindly to playing second fiddle) an expedition of discovery. The roguish adventurer Ulric Skakki, the scholarly Earl Eyvind Torfinn, and the far-too-fond-of-drink wizard Audun Gilli are also enlisted, and Hamnet's ex-wife Gudrid, now married to Eyvind (and no more faithful to him than she was to Hamnet), decides for reasons unclear to join them. Later Liv, a female shaman from Trasamund's clan, adds herself to the roster, and the oddly assorted group passes through the Gap, to find no Shrine, but a new society, an arrogant and warlike people calling themselves the Rulers, who are aware of the Gap too and have every intention of coming through it and conquering everything they see.
The book would be greatly improved by a map of Turtledove's world: though the expedition seems to be penetrating into an analogue of Earth's Land of the Midnight Sun, there's nothing to indicate that it is coming anywhere near an Arctic Ocean, nor is it clear why the Glacier is where it is (the Ice Age glaciers on our Earth originated in the polar icecaps or in mountain ranges, while this one seems to squat stolidly on a plain, or perhaps more accurately a tundra or taiga). Hamnet is a gloomy and rather self-pitying soul who has been deeply scarred by Gudrid's unfaithfulness and later desertion, and isn't always as sympathetic as a hero should be. There's also a good deal of sex and violence, which are probably inevitable in a world such as this one (and are handled with considerable diplomacy and skill) but definitely make this a novel for adults and very mature teens. But Ulric's wry humor, Liv's forthrightness, and the magic used by her and by Audun furnish much-needed lift to a long expository story which, as another reviewer has mentioned, does seem to be more of a long Act One than an independent volume. On the other hand, once Turtledove manages to get all his conditions and characters established and moves into the real action, he shows once again that there's a good reason he's gained a name for military alternate history. This isn't the best example of the author's work with which to begin your acquaintance with him, but it leaves you wanting to know more about Hamnet's and Trasamund's world and to see whether they will be able to convince the Emperor of the true threat the Rulers represent, unite the Bizogot clans (and perhaps the Raumsdalians) to meet it, and (maybe even) find the Golden Shrine.