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Book News

Fantasy that extends far beyond its genre

'Between the Rivers'
by Harry Turtledove

St. Martin's Press, $24.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

April 19, 1999
Web posted at: 3:16 p.m. EDT (1916 GMT)

(CNN) -- In a time when the world was younger, humans attributed forces they didn't understand to the whims of the gods. We look back on those times with a smile of superiority. We're smug in the knowledge that our ancient forebears were ignorant and superstitious, while we're educated and enlightened. It never occurs to us that we might be wrong.

It has occurred to Harry Turtledove. The author who's created masterful works of alternative history has turned his attention to the dawn of history in the novel "Between the Rivers."

He starts with the assumption that ancient religions were rooted firmly in fact, not superstition. The place is the Fertile Crescent, the plain between what we call the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The time is the early Bronze Age, when humans were first beginning to master the new technologies of the metal smith and the scribe.

In the city of Gibil, the Street of Smiths is the center of prosperity. Artisans fashion tools and weapons from the strange new amalgam of copper and tin. Merchants lead caravans across the plain and into the distant mountains to trade finished goods for raw materials. Gibil is thriving.

Its economy is based on powerful skills that have not been handed down by the gods. They've been discovered and developed by men. The god of the city, Engibil, has largely withdrawn from human affairs and is content to reap the benefits of prosperity within the walls of his temple. Only in Gibil does a mere mortal rule a city.

The son of a wealthy merchant, Sharur, leads a caravan toward the mountains. He carries a wide variety of trade goods, and has every expectation of turning enough profit to pay a proper bride price to the father of the woman he loves. Along the way, he'll do business with people whose lives are still ruled by their gods.

He considers himself lucky to have been born into an enlightened city like Gibil. "Sharur smiled nervously. He, a modern man, tried to stay out of the god's shadow and stand in his own light as much as he could. Strange to think he might have been enabled to become a modern man because Engibil caused a city to come into being."

His trade mission is a disaster. At every stop along the route, Sharur is blocked from conducting commerce. The gods, it seems, have taken an intense dislike to the people of Gibil and have forbidden their own subjects from trading with them. The young merchant realizes that he's not the only trader facing ruin. If Gibil cannot trade with other cities, it will wither and die.

Sharur is a clever young man. A touch too clever at times. His attempts to continue trade only make the gods angrier. By the time he returns to his own city, he has antagonized an entire pantheon of deities. Gibil faces economic isolation. Even worse, the city's god Engibil has taken an unusual interest in Sharur's affairs.

"Between the Rivers" is a kind of morality play. It pits the forces of reason against tenets of faith, its outcome uncertain until the end.

Turtledove has created an intriguing and elaborate setting and populated it with interesting and unusual characters --both human and divine. He spins his tale in prose that resonates to the rhythms of epic poetry. And he's not afraid to grapple with serious issues. What would drive a man to contend against the gods? What kind of god would create such a man in the first place?

There's nothing somber about "Between the Rivers," despite its heady subject matter. It's an adventurous romp replete with pitched battles, dark intrigues, sex and romance. It's a fantasy, but its appeal extends far beyond the limits of the genre.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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