am 1. Mai 2003
The setting is the world of the Aegean Sea in the year 310 B.C., the Hellenic world is shook up by the endless warring of the generals of Alexander the Great after their leader's death. But this isn't a tale about historic warfare, told from the point of view of one of those generals.
Instead, it's an easy-going, highly entertaining tale of two merchants from the "free and autonomous" polis of Rhodes. Menedemos and Sostratos are in charge of a merchantship, and they are about as similar as fire and water -- Menedemos chases skirts (especially those of married women) as avidly as Sostratos chases knowledge and history. But they prove an excellent team as traders, in the often recurring dickerings over prices, the strategies of plotting where to go and how to turn a newly acquired item into a profit. And since the particular interests of the lead characters inevitably find them in troublesome spots, there are plenty of occasions for them to quarrel, with Menedemos quoting Homer and Sostratos firing sophistries back.
The high points of the book are the presence of peafowl, completely new to this area and therefore valuable -- as well as stubborn, dirty, and annoying, cause for a good deal of comedy --, and then the journey to an Italy still ruled by Greeks rather than the obscure backwater people named "Romans".
Turteltaub delves deeply into the functionality of the times, such as the tools, the way ship travel worked in those days as well as the ideas and mannerisms -- and for that he relies more on dialogue than lengthy examinations that take us away from the characters. Thus he re-creates the world of 310 B.C. in full bloom, such as any fantasy or science-fiction author has to manage.
The latter is no surprise since the author is actually Harry Turtledove, hailed as the "Master of Alternate History" (who doesn't do much to disguise the fact). His research is as impeccable and amazing as ever, grounding his work in the immediate realism that other historical writers often ignore for the sake of teaching about history.
"Over the Wine-Dark Sea" is an entertaining book that teaches more about the way people lived in 310 B.C. than the high points of history -- and that makes it a breath of fresh air compared with some other novels of its kind.