Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove

The parents of Jeremy and Amanda Solters work for Crosstime Traffic, the groundbreaking company in the late-21st century that has discovered how to travel to different earths with alternate histories. From places where the Nazis won World War Two, to an alternate North America in which the United States was never created, to worlds where the planet was destroyed by nuclear war or in which humans never existed, Crosstime Traffic employees visit many numerous "earths".

For the Solters family, they have been assigned to travel to a world in which the Roman Empire never fell and which has survived for more than 2,000 years. In this earth, technological progress has been incredibly slow, although a primitive form of gunpowder and guns do exist. When their mother gets ill, their parents travel back to the home timeline for medical treatment, leaving the two teenage children behind in Polisso, a Roman city that is located in what we would call Romania.

After the parents leave, something goes wrong with the computer system hidden in the basement of their house that they use to communicate with the home timeline. To their horror, the Solters' children realize that the communication link has been cut-off, and that they have no way of getting in touch with their parents or anyone back home. The situation becomes grave when war breaks out and a neighbouring empire attacks Polisso. Will they be stuck in this alternate history forever? Will they ever see their parents again? And will the city fall to the invading army?

These questions form the basis of a fairly interesting plot. Unfortunately, this potential is squandered by robotic writing and one-dimensional characters. While I appreciated the alternate history, the story did not engage me very much.

This book is the first novel in the six-volume Crosstime Traffic series for young adults. Each part of the series, however, is a standalone story, so it is not necessary to read them in order. In fact, I previously read three other volumes (see reviews here, here and here). From what I have read up to this point, it is clear that this series is based on a formula: Crosstime Traffic employees travel to an earth with an alternate history; a female and male protagonist drive the story; the Crosstime employees return to their home timeline after making an impact in the alternate world.

Sometimes this formula works, as is the case when the characters tackle such themes as slavery, sexism, war, inhumane treatment of animals and resource extraction. However, the positives are often undermined by characters that are pure plot robots, i.e. wooden personalities without any interesting identities of their own, whose only purpose is to move a story along. In addition, the writing is often clunky. The latter makes sense given that Harry Turtledove is a prolific writer. This impressive output, however, means that the writing often seems rushed, as if output was more important that quality.

Of the four Crosstime Traffic books that I have read this is my least favourite. Part of my opinion comes from the fact that I am now familiar with the series formula, and that this technique is repetitive. Even though the setting is different from other novels, and the characters are not connected to the other books, this story feels like a clone of the others. Hopefully the other two books in the series that I have not read are better.

2 out of 5 stars