By Alexander Wallace
Harry Turtledove has a special love for the Byzantine Empire. He has written a whole fantasy series with Byzantium as a subject, plus as a whole historical fiction series, as well as literally getting a Ph.D in Byzantine history; one of his early publications is a translation of The Chronicle of Theophanes. Here we shall take a look at another of his Byzantine-flavored works, one that isn’t quite as well-known.
I refer to 1997’s Thessalonica, a fantasy story that qualifies as alternate history, if only as a technicality. Thisoccr is not explicitly alternate history in the sense that it has a rigorously defined point of divergence; rather, it has our history and adds a veritable host of magic to it. The book itself was heavily inspired by the Miracles of Saint Demetrius, about the purported deeds of the titular patron saint of the city of Thessalonica (now often romanized as ‘Thessaloniki’). In this regard, it resembles certain other works of historical fantasy, such as Turtledove’s own The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump (which, in my opinion, is his best single novel). This is in contrast to P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, which I have reviewed for this blog, which has a distinct point of divergence for the arrival of the supernatural in the world. In this regard, Thessalonica is something of an edge case, genre-wise, but genres are nothing more than marketing categories. I think its interest to alternate history readers justifies its inclusion here.
The story itself is a relatively simple one: the city of Thessalonica is under siege by the Slavs and the Avars. Your main character, George, is a cobbler in town with a wife and two children who is also a part of the city militia. This is in a world where Christianity and its various attendant beings have displaced, but not exterminated, the traditional creatures of Greek myth; a number of creatures from Greek stories are present. They are confronted with the Slavic mythology of the invaders, who have their own strange creatures and magics.
It is a story that shows off just how well Turtledove can write combat. He takes an interesting approach by having George be one of the city’s defenders. Much of the action (and the pyrotechnics) occurs from atop the walls of Thessalonica, often with many arrows flung up and down. You feel the earth shake as gods bestride the ground and cause the clear sky to darken. This format, though, also leads to the book’s greatest weakness, in that this gradual escalation of magic being thrown hither and yon can feel somewhat repetitive after a while.
Our protagonist George also deserves some comment. Like David of The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, but unlike the protagonists of many similar novels, he is not young, not fawning, not head-over-heels in love, not impulsive, not impetuous. He is in middle age with a steady job and a steady family, and has the sensibilities that such a life gives somebody. It’s a breath of fresh air when the average age of a fantasy protagonist is somewhere in their early twenties.
Some side characters are quite fun; I for one grew quite fond of the man who serves as something of a stand-up comedian in the bar in Thessalonica that George frequents. Stand-up comedy, as we understand it, originated among vaudeville in the United States in the nineteenth century, so the character is something of an anachronism. He is, though, quite funny, so I didn’t really mind.
To the secular reader (like myself), Turtledove does a very good job at showing how the faithful think. To them, this stuff is very real; the characters here, especially the Christians, live life with the assumption that there is a higher power holding them to account; for them, an explicit moral code is taken for granted. It is something totally at odds with many post-religious views of the world, and it is rendered very well.
Thessalonica, despite its flaws, is a good book. It might not be strictly ‘alternate history’ in the most exacting sense, but it is very well written and uses the historical setting in a satisfying way. It’s not your typical alternate history novel, no, but what’s the point in staying strictly to that? Variety is, after all, the spice of life, even if it comes in Byzantine packaging.