The Breath of God
by Harry Turtledove
Review by Tom Easton
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765317117
Date: 23 December 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Harry Turtledove's Opening of the World series began with Beyond the Gap, whose world was a strange amalgam of our world at the time of the last ice age blended with a civilization rather like the Rome of a dozen millennia later. The location is less than certain, for the landscape features American sabertooth tigers and glyptodonts and there is no sign of Paleo-Indians. Names of both pseudo-Romans and frontier barbarians (Bizogots) have a roughly Scandinavian or Gothic feel--Ulric Skakki, Gudrid, Eyvind Torfinn, Dragolen, Odovacar, for instance.
Turtledove specializes in alternative history yarns, of course, so perhaps none of this matters. He has a world, well peopled, facing a crisis similar to one people faced once before, long ago: The great glacier to the north, across which the Breath of God blows icy cold in winter, is in retreat, and an opening to another realm has melted through. In Beyond the Gap, Count Hamnet Thyssen and Ulric Skakki, adventurer rogue, led an expedition to see what was on the other side and met the Rulers, a cruel folk whose troops ride mammoths and deer. The Rulers view other folks as little better than animals, and their sorcerers are more potent than anything Count Hamnet's people can field. They pose a major threat to Hamnet's civilization, but when he brings word home to an emperor who refuses to be contradicted, he is scorned and banished.
In The Breath of God, Hamnet is back in the north. Instead of his lost bitch-wife Gudrid, he has Liv, a Bizogot shaman. He also has other Bizogot allies, the remnants of clans destroyed by the Rulers as they advance into Bizogot lands.
Hamnet et al. try to drive back a Ruler force but are almost destroyed. In the end they must flee up the rough slope of an avalanche to the top of the glacier, where much to their surprise people live. The air is thin, and food is so scarce that they eat their foes, but they have persisted for so long that their tongue is barely recognizable. They have also cultivated a variety of sorcery that makes the shaman Marcofeva sneer at the Ruler sorcerers as "not so much." Before long, she has accompanied Hamnet et al. back to the plains and all the way back to the empire's capital, where Hamnet is tossed into the dungeon for once more contradicting the emperor with bad news.
Of course, once the Rulers trash an imperial army, Hamnet is released to go stop them. Thanks to Marcofeva he actually has a chance, as well as--since Hamnet's jealousy has driven Liv away--a chance at happiness.
Not that the tale comes to an end quite that quickly. There are setbacks and partial victories, and when this volume ends, Hamnet can only say that there is hope. What happens to that hope is the meat of the next volume. I hope that somewhere along the line he also clears up a few inconsistencies in terminology and character (what happened to Marcofeva's raven?).