Tag Archives: archaeology

Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt

Tom Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? is a silly caper story involving a hidden cache of Norsemen, an archaeology graduate student, and their journey together through Britain while trying not to gather too much attention — and failing.  It’s a story that reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld books, which means that it was an entertaining read involving quirky characters and a kooky plot.  This is a good thing.

The entire thing starts with the discovery of a Norse ship uncovered by a construction crew in Scotland.  A rather naive grad student, Hildy Frederiksen, is sent to check it out.  She’s excited to see that the boat is a complete specimen, goes back to her hotel, and then gets the urge to return to the mound.  Once there, she discovers the crew of the boat awake and walking around, which they most certainly should not be doing, having been buried there for twelve hundred years.

The crew really is a well-honed battle group whose slumber has been in place merely until the time is right to prevent a particularly bad person from doing … well, something particularly bad.  Hildy takes on the responsibility of finding food and clothing for the men, as well as shuttling them around and getting them acquainted with the modern world.  This last task, surprisingly, isn’t as hard as it would seem.  The Norsemen take modern technology in stride, thinking it the same as their magic; most likely it is, seeing as they have brooches they connect to electrically-charged chthonic spirits to make things happen.

Mixed in here is the story of Danny Bennett, a fluff-piece reporter who earnestly wishes to write something more substantial.  He stumbles on the Norse gentlemen, and his future gets entwined with theirs.  Also making an appearance is the enemy’s guy Friday, whose experiences help to fill in a little back story (and provides for some nail-biting).

I think this book is really quite good.  The writing is light, pulling just short of treating the plot as inconsequential.  Holt manages to give us a full story with some endearing characters experiencing something very surreal without it feeling like a fairy tale, which is nice.  The end feels as realistic as possible for a fantasy tale; things aren’t perfect, but they turn up good at the end.

A couple of things were a little off with the book, though.  I didn’t quite get why we needed the chthonic spirits (other than to give the plot something to turn on).  If they’re basically little living batteries, why can’t they use batteries when they discover them missing?  They managed to do that with the other brooch, so that was a little confusing.

I also felt like the book was a little light on substance.  It’s one thing to have a breezy feel.  It’s quite another to whisk the reader by points before they get a chance to sink in.  A slightly slower pace would have made Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? a little better.

The last problem I have with the book is that, without an interest in Norse history and literature, you might be a little lost during some sections of the book.  Sure, the person might know “Viking”, but I’m not sure how many know the mythology, the Eddas, and the sagas well enough to pull out some of the more interesting bits of the story.

Overall, though, Holt put together a delightfully humorous story about Norsemen in modern-day Britain.  This makes him okay in my book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Filed under 4/5, Book review, Fiction, Mixed

A Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove

I like hominids.  When I was in college, I took a physical anthropology course to fulfill some of my natural science credit, and really enjoyed it.  I even remember most of what I learned, which is a feat in and of itself.  So I looked forward to reading A Different Flesh, which puts forth the question — what if American Indians never settled the Americas, and instead Homo erectus (here called sims) was present when Columbus sailed?

To tell the truth, I had no idea where Turtledove was going to go with this.  Having only read his Worldwar series, I was guessing that there would be a lot of warfare.  I was fairly wrong.  Turtledove, rather than following one particular person, spends each chapter in a section of time and explores human-sim interactions.  This felt to me to be a fantastic way of exploring the idea, and one that most authors don’t employ; movement along time to uncover the differences and similarities between his imaginary world and ours helps expose the gulf between the two.

In the beginning, there is violence, and the sims give as good as they get.  Soon, however, it’s clear that the sims are not capable of adaptation, and thus start losing ground — quite literally.  Their land is slowly taken from them, and they become more marginalized.  They are also “domesticated” and used for menial labor.  Sims’ existence also provides a backdrop for the earlier formation of the theory of evolution, which sparks earlier scientific achievements of other types.

Against this backdrop, Turtledove shows us a world in which the Americas outlaw slavery for humans at a far earlier date than our own country decided to — against creatures such as the sims, humans of any type are obviously much the same and are worthy of the full rights deemed appropriate for one’s fellow man.

While declaring all people of equal worth, there is also the prominent struggle of putting sims in the proper context.  Are they human, or merely animals?  What rights do they have?  Turtledove brings this topic up again and again, sometimes in disturbing ways.  Sims are used for medical experiments, much as animals are.  The arguments about using them in such a way are similar to those used to justify the use of other animals for medical research.  How strange it feels to use creatures who have the ability to understand language (plus create spontaneous sentences of their own), create tools, live in camps, cook their food, and plan ahead for our own benefit and not necessarily theirs.

I enjoyed this book greatly.  I have often wondered about what life would be like with another hominid still alive and kicking on Earth.  Turtledove did a remarkable job of providing a possible answer.  His prose is clear, and his conclusions follow in logical fashion.  It is a thought-provoking book, raising questions about how we treat one another and our fellow species on this planet.

Rating: 5/5

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Filed under 5/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction