Harry Turtledove will be the Author Guest of Honor at CoKoCon over the 2018 Labor Day weekend and I should mark that with a review of one of his books. Even though I picked up a number at Gaslight Gathering in San Diego in 2015, I decided to go all the way back to the beginning when he had to use a pseudonym because his editor thought that nobody would believe Turtledove was a real name. So I pulled out his debut, 'Wereblood', which my Trojan paperback credits to Eric Iverson on the cover and Erik Iverson on the title page, which was published in 1979. That lack of consistency extends to the title, which is clearly 'Were Blood' on the cover but 'Wereblood' inside and on the spine. Proofing is important, folks.
There a few obvious things to point out before we begin. One is that this is sword and sorcery, not the alternate history that we're used to from Turtledove. Another is that it's a much skimpier volume than he usually creates, totalling a brief 140 or so pages of relatively large type. That's because, point three, it's not really a novel, it's only half a novel, the first six chapters of a story to be finished up in the same year's 'Werenight'. Lastly, it's surprisingly good. I found myself quickly engrossed and knocked out both books within 24 hours.
While this is definitely pulp fiction, written in the Robert E. Howard style, Turtledove was clearly no novice and he did more in one chapter than many debuting writers manage in an entire book.
Our lead is Gerin, the baron of Fox Keep in the northern stretches of the Elabonian Empire. He's a good man and an oddly learned one, who never expected to lead. That was his brother's job, but Viredorix, the leader of their traditional enemy, the barbarians known as Trokmoi, killed both brother and father, so leaving the barony to Gerin. Well, some years later, those barbarians are back, invading the Fox's turf, and Gerin gets his revenge soon into the chapter, killing Viredorix in battle. The catch is that there's a new and bigger enemy to replace him, a powerful wizard called Balamung, who conjures up a magical bridge over the raging river Niffet as a quick and easy way through bad weather for the barbarian horde.
What makes this so good is that this is far from all that we get in that first chapter. There's history and there's geography; we're placed well in this world which is clearly influenced by the UK: the Trokmoi are very Scots and the Fox's men are grim up-north-English. There's peace and there's war. There are neighbours, cohorts and enemies. There's magic, on a small scale and an epic one. And, of course, there are beards and serving wenches and plenty of ale. Everything you might expect from a sword and sorcery tale is here and this first twenty page chapter could have sold as a short story all on its own. Oh, and did I mention the man/scorpion demon? There's one of those too.
Fortunately, the book doesn't end there and we move into a new chapter, both literally and figuratively. Gerin and his men rebuff the invasion and send the Trokmoi back over their magical bridge, but he knows full well that he's unable to defeat such a powerful wizard. His only choice is to travel south to the empire's capital city, Elabon, and seek help from the Sorcerers' Collegium, the only place to find a sorcerer strong enough to stand against Balamung. He takes only a trusted colleague, Van of the Strong Arm, an outsider but a giant one and one with a good deal of character.
A few baronies south, he acquires a third companion for their journey, a fellow baron's daughter called Elise, whom he saves from marriage to Wolfar, whom you won't be surprised to learn has some of the wereblood that the title promises us. In the interests of full disclosure, that's as close as we get to wereblood here, something that really doesn't have any importance until a major scene late in the second book. I'm sure that you won't be surprised in the slightest to find that Gerin and Elise start to connect, albeit over poetry, perhaps the last thing you'd ever read about in a Robert E. Howard story.
I won't spoil the rest, because this is a short book and only half a story, but I will say that it rattles along at an agreeable pace, with a little intrigue, plenty of action and some characterful conflict to boot. Turtledove, even here, at the very beginning of his career, was seeing much larger pictures than we might expect for the subject matter, and he had the talent to march us through a set of smaller pictures that gradually build into the big one.
I enjoyed the sweep of this story, episodic though it is, as much as the characters, as few as they are. I felt like I'd signed up to ride with the Fox too, as he journeyed south through different landscapes and mindsets to find his goal, which he unfortunately doesn't reach until the beginning of the second book. Why Belmont Tower in the US and Trojan and Ace/Stoneshire in the UK chose to issue this book in two halves, I have no idea, as we don't even end on a cliffhanger. I very much recommend that, if you're interested in this book, you pick up the pair and read them together.
'Wereblood' was never going to win Turtledove any of the many awards his later career racked up, but it really doesn't read like a debut novel. This is the work of a writer comfortable with his craft, even if he would hone it later. He sees more of the Empire of Elabon and the lands surrounding it than Gerin does and he allows his lead to explore and learn. He also fills it with colour and texture, not just the things I've already mentioned but wildlife and a set of four moons.
Most intriguing of all, though, are the ghosts, as they sit apart from this story as much as they sit apart from the world it conjures up. They come out at night and haunt the highways, a constant annoyance to travellers, who have figured out a few tricks to keep them at bay. They're not crucial to the story, though they will bring some added value to the second half; here, they just add something otherworldly that's welcome in a book that hints at werewolves and doesn't deliver them (in this half, at least). Turtledove does at least deliver gods and demons, which, after all, sword and sorcery expects in some fashion.
I wasn't expecting to enjoy 'Wereblood' this much. I should have pulled it off the shelf decades earlier. I should add, of course, that, back then, I had no idea that Eric Iverson was Harry Turtledove. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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