Harry Turtledove is a renowned historian; he’s an expert in Byzantine history, ask and I’ve been told that there aren’t very many of those in the U.S., total. The title of his dissertation, produced at UCLA, is (according to Wikipedia) The Immediate Successors of Justinian: A Study of the Persian Problem and of Continuity and Change in Internal Secular Affairs in the Later Roman Empire During the Reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine (AD 565–582). (Yes, really.) He’s also a renowned alternate historian, and has written volumes upon volumes of alternate-history books which use different parts of his Byzantine knowledge (by which I both mean ‘of the Byzantine era’ and ‘labyrinthine’) to imbue his works with incredible historical accuracy.
Gunpowder Empire is set towards the end of the twenty-first century, mostly. Jeremy Soltero and his family live most of the year in southern California, where Jeremy and his sister Amanda attend school, but during the summers they live and work in one of the ‘alternates,’ an alternate reality where the Roman Empire still exists and things have not gotten significantly more technologically advanced than they were around 500 C.E. There, they trade things like straight razors and Swiss army knives for grain, which cannot be grown in the amounts needed in their normal reality. Everything is fine, until Jeremy’s mom gets sick and Jeremy’s dad has to take her back . . . and then the transportation and communication setup mysteriously stops working. Are Jeremy and his sister stuck in the alternate?
This is a YA novel that seems to have been published as an adult novel. Jeremy is sixteen or seventeen at the start of the book, and his sister isn’t much younger. The general thrust of the book is a coming-of-age story: Jeremy and Amanda having to learn how to function as adults in a society that is rather far removed from the one they were born into. The book is also less than three hundred pages long, which is quite unusual for a Harry Turtledove novel. All of these combine to make me think that perhaps Dr. Turtledove even intended it to be read by younger readers. Adults, of course, would most likely enjoy it as well, as it’s still exciting and it looks like an adult novel, but I think that it’s really for YAs.
I liked Jeremy well enough, but I liked his sister Amanda more. She’s more compassionate, more observant, and less given to pedantic thought-asides. Although all characters and the omniscient third-person narrator are, of course, given to pedantic historical asides, Amanda’s are more interesting and her character seems to have more things straight than Jeremy. There is a scene where Amanda admits that Jeremy’s incredibly intelligent but rather lacking in social skills. I’m a bit torn on this scene; I can’t decide whether it’s just an excuse and a stereotype (girls are emotional, boys are rational), but I do know that certain autism-spectrum diseases present exactly like Jeremy is described in boys, and quite differently in girls, so perhaps Dr. Turtledove thought it all out in advance.
One problem I had with the book was the style. I wasn’t expecting it to be so . . . choppy. Those who prefer a more literary and/or flowing style might have some issues with this particular work of his; I’ve heard from fans that different books have a more writerly tone and less of a journalistic feel. Many of the sentences were short, and there were a lot of asides, as I mentioned above; all of them contained interesting historical information, but not all of them were as much fun to read. Overall, I did quite enjoy the book; I finished it in one afternoon. I’d recommend it for fans of alternate histories, and fans of Harry Turtledove, but also younger readers who like exciting (and grisly) things like war, battles, and bits of sand in bread. 3.5/5 stars.