By Alexander Wallace
I have the somewhat unpopular opinion in alternate history circles that Harry Turtledove remains perhaps my favorite author ever. It is he, more than any other individual author, who got me into the genre of alternate history and into speculative fiction more broadly (I read a good deal of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and Jerry Pournelle in my youth, but none have had the influence that Turtledove has had). I think that, at his best, he is very good at making you care about the broad strokes of human history. His prose is not the brisk prose of a thriller writer; rather, he immerses you in a world, slowly walking you through a different history.
I started reading his work in 2011, when I was finishing up eighth grade (fourteen years old in the American school system). Liam Connell has put forth an argument that Turtledove works best for the precocious early adolescent; my own experience does seem to back up that assertion. But, as I reread some of what I read back then, or some of his more recent work, I find myself seeing all the flaws my colleagues point out in his work but enjoy them all the same, much as I do the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
One of those newer works of his that I have only read recently is his novel The House of Daniel. The plot concerns a young baseball player in Oklahoma during the Great Depression who is given the chance to play on a traveling team sponsored by the House of Daniel, an esoteric Christian sect based on the real-world House of David. He then travels by bus from Oklahoma all across the western United States, playing game after game against local teams.
But the America he travels across is not our own. This world is an ‘urban fantasy’ of sorts (not in the sense that it’s set in the big cities, but rather in an urbanized industrial society), where zombies are used for cheap labor (putting living humans out of jobs) and American-accented vampires haunt cheap motels. There are all sorts of strange things that our protagonist encountered, and they are full of wonder and awe and occasional terror (the best of these happens when he stops in a certain town in New Mexico).
One of the common criticisms of Turtledove’s work is that his prose is prodding and slow; I for one generally find it to be atmospheric, but I can see why someone would think that. It is in The House of Daniel that his prose complements his story best in his entire oeuvre; as that bus full of ballplayers travels the lonely open roads through a vast and seemingly empty land, pockmarked by towns and reservations. The use of this sort of prose for this sort of atmosphere is compelling, and gives you a sense of how far everyone in this novel has come, physically or otherwise.
One of Turtledove’s pet interests is baseball, hence the choice of protagonist and of the particular contours of the plot. There are some detailed descriptions of baseball games that some may find off-putting but I, someone who has never been much into any sport (barring dancesport), found them easy enough to get through. Those who are more into the sport will doubtlessly see much more in this book than I did.
Turtledove’s fantasy is generally not talked of nearly as much as his straight alternate history or science fiction; I would argue that his best single novel is The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump (I’ll admit to not having read the Videssos cycle as of yet). Here, he combines alternate history and fantasy in a way that reminds me of P. Djeli Clark’s corpus. This is a novel that accomplishes what it sets out to do quite well: to immerse you in a world of baseball and magic and economic hardship. It is a transcontinental journey very much worth taking.