Over the Wine-Dark Sea

A retro review from November 18, 2008.

It’s more Harry Turtledove lurking behind that H. N. Turteltaub pseudonym.

For reasons I briefly explain, I am not a big consumer of historical fiction (though I like historical fiction mixed with a fantastic element), and, to date, I haven’t read the other three books in the Menedemos and Sostratos series.

Review: Over the Wine-Dark Sea, H. N. Turteltaub, 2001.Over the Wine Dark Sea

I have trouble appreciating historical novels, but I was curious as to what Harry Turtledove, author of numerous alternate histories and here writing under a pen name, would do with historical fiction set not too far outside of his formal training in Byzantine history.

Set in 310 BC, it features only two main characters – not several like his alternate history novels – who are cousins going on a trading voyage for their family business. Menedemos is younger but still the alpha male. Smart, but not intellectual, impulsive, charismatic, a natural leader and frequent bedder of other men’s wives; he’s the captain. The older Sostratos is not as comfortable among others, an intellectual and would-be historian, not at all impulsive and not as physically gifted as his cousin. They bicker about much, not the least the merits of Homer, Aristophanes, and Thucydides.

The novel is a leisurely description of a trading trip through the Mediterranean from Rhodes to Italy and Sicily. This is a workaday novel with no secret messages being carried, no quest for fabled or magical items, no endangered beautiful princesses , no villain to pursue or flee. The most exotic thing is the cousins’ attempts to get rid of a load of peacocks. In his afterword, Turtledove gives his historical sources for some of the events and characters. (It turns out Menedemos is an historical character though Turtledove gives no further details.)

Turtledove keeps his usual tics down to a minimum. In other words, there aren’t too many puns, and the author doesn’t spend as much time as usual blatantly emphasizing the callousness of our heroes to the moral evils of the novel’s world.

If you want a detailed description of the minutia of this world, I suspect this isn’t the novel for you. I thought I got enough details without Turtledove trying to show off his research. Whenever I’ve encountered that sort of historical novel before, I get impatient and think I might as well just read a straight history about the same time period. Neither cousin being a famous historical personage was also a plus for me.


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