It’s been a long time since I’ve done a book review. Most of the lag was for a rereading of The Lord of the Rings, which I trust every literate English-speaker on the face of the earth has read by now. Tolkien goes without reviewing. I tried to read The Shelters of Stone, but I was confused by a major POV shift on the second page, annoyed by the frequent infodumps, and bored by the end of the first chapter, so I gave up and switched to the only other novel of the ancient world on my to-read shelf.
Between the Rivers by Harry Turtledove was another one of my Buck-a-Book finds. I hadn’t heard of it elsewhere, not even on that list I once found of books based on the ideas in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The blurb sounded more interesting to me than his usual histories of wars.
The novel is an history of Mesopotamia at the dawn of consciousness, if you consider The Origin of Consciousness to be the true history. The psychological deities of Julian Jaynes are trotted out as larger-than-life gods and goddesses, jealous of the advances men have made, most especially in the new crafts of writing and bronzeworking. Men from other cities behave as Jaynes claimed the god-possessed peoples of the ancient world behaved, while Our Heros are the fully-conscious modern men who eventually arose out of the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates.
War is endemic between the conscious men and the followers of various regional gods, but as the novel opens the gods are especially riled up and band together against the crafty people of Gibil. Our Heroes strive to find a way to elude or appease the wrath of the angry gods.
The best part of the novel is the style of speech. All the characters sound like they’ve just stepped out of the Bible, with their poetical repetition. The book is at least a quarter longer than the story itself required because each character must restate what he himself has said, or what others have said to him. It sounds terribly annoying but somehow it never is.
The cover art features a man who looks like he’s dressed for an ice age and a woman in a burqa. Neither is appropriate for ancient Mesopotamia; the book itself specifies the minimal clothing of the well-to-do of both genders, and that the poorest went naked. I know cover art is often inaccurate, but this is the first one that actually annoyed me, probably because it reminded me of my recent bad experience with The Shelters of Stone.
Another disappointment was the gods. Having them trooping around, spying on people and tossing boulders, was too fantastic for my taste. The description of god-possessed men was more intriguing than the appearances the gods made outside of people. I would have appreciated something closer to the spirit of The Origin of Consciousness.
The ending was a good twist, but would have had more of an emotional impact for me had I found the gods more believable. Instead, their flaws made them less believable - a fantasy addition to a more realistic history. Nevertheless, it was an engrossing tale.