A wizards-and-warriors type book with strongly written, intriguing characters, Beyond the Gap is the latest novel by Harry Turtledove, the bestselling author of alternative history books. The main protagonist is minor noble Count Hamnet Thyssen of the Raumsdalian Empire, which at one time was located at the edge of a the great Glacier. The icecap has been slowly retreating for hundreds of years and is now beyond the horizon of Raumsdalia, though its effects are still felt when harsh winter winds grip the Empire like remorseless, frigid, skeletal fingers.
The Glacier is not merely retreating; Count Hamnet learns when a visiting Bizogot barbarian jarl (clan chief) arrives at court that an actual gap has opened leading into new lands, where there might be new animals and possibly new people. It might even lead to the legendary Golden Shrine, where God Himself may reside on Earth. Trasamund wants Sigvat II, the Raumsdalian emperor, to help him get an expedition together to learn more about what is ”beyond the gap.”
Besides Hamnet and Trasamund, who act as co-leaders of the troupe, there is Ulric Skakki, who is a good fighter but also has the reputation as sneaky, cunning, and possibly a thief; the grieving wizard Audun Gilli, who Ulric has pulled drunken from the gutters of Raumsdalia; and the scholar Earl Eyvind Torfian, who has much knowledge of the past and is married to Gudrid, the harpy-like ex-wife of Hamnet. She cuckolded Hamnet on more than one occasion, leading the Count to run through one of her lovers with his sword in vengeance.
This only seems to further encourage Gudrid in her continued infidelities. She perversely delights in torturing Hamnet with her barbs and thinly veiled comments, flaunting her sexual conquests of Sigvat and Trasamund under the noses of both Hamnet and current husband, whom she takes for an aging fool. ”Fool” is an important and recurring word in Beyond the Gap, one which Hamnet uses often to describe characteristics or actions of both himself and others.
When she shows up at a serai (inn) where the adventurers have spent the night with a retinue of imperial soldiers with a sealed message from Sigvat demanding that Gudrid be allowed to join them, Hamnet is less than pleased. He is sorely tempted to quit the journey and go back to Raumsdalia and his castle against the Emperor’s direct orders. He tells Gudrid that “the journey can go hang. And so, my former dear, can you.” Ulric convinces him to not give up the quest, saying, “If you leave, if you walk away, that woman wins.”
Turtledove is a good writer, and anyone who likes to read sword-and-sorcery or wizards-and-warriors types of books should love Beyond the Gap. Did I leave out alternative history fans? I’m sure that at least some of them should like this book, the first in a series about Hamnet, his friends, and the hostile people beyond the Gap who call themselves in their tongue the “Rulers”; but, for whatever reasons, there are those who don’t. One reason might be that Beyond the Gap doesn’t deal with a period of history like the Civil War or World War II, with set facts and well-known battles, people, and events that can be toyed with in various “what if” scenarios. Instead, it is about people and events of pre-history, at the dawn of civilization.
It’s all a matter of semantics whether such a book should even be placed in the genre of alternative history at all. This book is, to my way of thinking, more in the tradition of the excellent books by Edgar Rice Burroughs like The Land That Time Forgot, or Robert E. Howard’s King Kull and Conan the Barbarian novels. This book and series should be judged on their own merits, not on whether or not they fit some preconception of what belongs (or doesn’t) in a certain genre.
The heroes are heroic, the hostile Rulers are ruthless and make for good villains, and the quest for the Golden Shrine is one worthy of Hamnet and company. It’s also refreshing to read about a wizard who is a woman, the Bizogot shaman Liv, who becomes Hamnet’s love interest and helps him get beyond the bitterness that pervades his life after his experiences with Gudrid. She and Gudrid are both motivating factors in Hamnet’s life and the success of the quest, proving (along with classics such as Howard’s Red Sonja) that women can have a place in this often testosterone-influenced genre.
There’s humorous situations, wordplay and asides to be found in Beyond the Gap that help lighten the mood. Turtledove is a master of weaving humor into his tales, and this is no exception. Be warned that some of it is occasionally bawdy, sometimes corny, and might want to make you groan out loud. When the imperial guard captain Jesper Fleti asks Ulric if the animals he see are mammoths, Ulric responds: “Not at all. Those are steppe fleas. And if you’re not careful, they’ll step on you.” Despite the fact that Turtledove occasionally gets a bit carried away with wordplay, for the most part he uses it only when the situation warrants it. If you’re looking for a engrossing tale of wizards, barbarians, heroes, quests, and adventure, look no further than Beyond the Gap.