Household Gods - Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove (1999)

Household Gods is a fish out of water tale, where a high powered 90's lawyer and single mother is transported back to the body of an ancestor living in the Roman city of Carnuntum towards the end of the 2nd century AD. Nicole, our protagonist, finds life in the distant past jarring and most of the action and conflict in the book comes from her adjusting to daily life in a frontier town during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Nicole learns a lot about herself during her time in Carnuntum and when she is returned to the present she's a better and happier person.

If you think that sounds like a heartwarming Disney or Lifetime channel movie, you're not too far off the mark. This book annoyed me, which is not to say that I didn't finish reading it. To be a bit clearer, Nicole annoyed me. Her constant culture shock, powered by late twentieth century American self-righteousness, was an almost constant grating presence through the first half of the book. Ironically (at least, ironically for those of you familiar with my "Daily Life ..." reviews), this was the portion of the book where Nicole learned to deal with "Daily Life in the Roman Empire". The problem was that every new facet of daily life was viewed through Nicole's eyes, which meant that it was all horrible, primitive and barbaric. That means that almost every bit of history which appears in the book is prefixed by a sentence like, "Everything was suddenly horrifying." After the first twenty times, that gets a little old.

As far as the history goes, that works rather well. The Daily Life portion of the book is interesting and even pointing out the differences between now and then isn't a bad idea. If only you didn't have to endure Nicole's whiny internal debates.

The book does settle down by the middle, and even if it resolves itself into a rather too tidy ending, it has some very enjoyable moments. As a fictionalized account of life in a frontier Roman town, it's fascinating and well executed. The grafting of a rather cliche plot on top of it works less well, but is only really intrusive at the beginning and the very end. I can't recommend the book whole heartedly, but neither is it without merit.

Overall Grade: C+

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