Sunday, October 7, 2007

Beyond the Gap by Harry Turtledove (2007)

Hardback cover blurb

Count Hamnet Thyssen is a minor noble of the drowsy old Raumsdalian Empire. Its capital city, Nidaros, began as a mammoth hunters’ camp at the edge of the great Glacier. But that was centuries ago, and as everyone knows, it’s the nature of the great Glacier to withdraw a few feet every year. Now Nidaros is an old and many-spired city; and though they still feel the breath of the great Glacier in every winter’s winds, the ice cap itself has retreated beyond the horizon.

Trasamund, a clan chief of the mammoth-herding Bizogots, the next tribe north, has come to town with strange news. A narrow gap has opened in what they'd always thought was an endless and impregnable wall of ice. The great Glacier does not go on forever--and on its other side are new lands, new animals, and possibly new people.

Ancient legend says that on the other side is the Golden Shrine, put there by the gods to guard the people of their world. Now, perhaps, the road to the legendary Golden Shrine is open. Who could resist the urge to go see? Not Hamnet Thyssen or Trasmund. Not Ulric Skakki, Hamnet’s old comrade in arms: a good man to have at your side, although perhaps not at your back. And not, damnably, Eyvind Torfinn – a scholar, a very knowledgavle man but, alas, the husband of Hamnet’s former wife, Gudrid: a troublemaker if there ever was one. She’s decided to come along, too.

For every one of them, the glacier has always been the boundary of the world. Now they'll be traveling beyond it into a world that's bigger than anyone knew. Adventures will surely be had...

My thoughts

Beyond the Gap almost breaks the rules that I spell out to the right, but since it is a fantasy rather than a historical drama, it qualifies for inclusion on this blog. Anyway, after spending the last three evenings reading it, I felt it would have been a waste not to review it.

The novel is an odd mix of Clan of the Cave Bear and Dungeons & Dragons. It is a swords and sorcery tale that substitutes mammoths and short-faced bears for dragons and unicorns, and it is set in a fantasy version of North America at the end of the last Ice Age. The continent is home to a European civilization cut off from the rest of the world by a great ice sheet to the north (the Laurentide ice sheet). A warming climate has caused the ice sheet to split in two, and Count Hamnet Thyssen is charged by the emperor to lead an expedition through the gap to see what is on the other side. Problem is, Hamnet’s ex-wife has decided to accompany the group, and she delights in tormenting her former husband every chance she gets.

Beyond the Gap is far from Turtledove’s best work. The characterization is thin and the dialogue often clunky and amateurish. The whole “angry ex-wife” subplot was thrown in to flesh out the main character, but he is portrayed as so stereotypically good and his ex-wife as so stereotypically evil that their relationship isn’t the least bit interesting. The rest of the cast is composed of stock characters from fantasy fiction: A boisterous barbarian, a wise-cracking rogue, a down-on-his-luck wizard. Only the setting shows some originality.

The plot moves at a glacial pace (ha ha) with really not much happening in the 320 pages of the novel. There isn’t enough action to keep fans of adventure fiction happy, and the characters are not human enough to really care about what happens to them. Several Ice Age animals have cameos throughout the book, or are at least mentioned, but they are more for color than an integral part of the plot.

Beyond the Gap is meant to be the first book in a new fantasy series and the ending leaves room for what could be an interesting sequel. I generally like Turtledove’s works, and he has tackled the same subject matter better in the past, so there is hope this series could improve.


  • Beyond the Gap clearly takes its inspiration from the theory that at the end of the last Ice Age, a corridor opened up in the Laurentide ice sheet that allowed the ancestors of the Native Americans to travel from Alaska to the rest of the continent. This PBS Nova web site has a graphic illustrating the gap and may help you visualize the world of the novel.


10,000 B.C. poster

This is not book news, but I thought it may interest anyone who likes to read about prehistoric animals. The movie poster for the upcoming film 10,000 B.C. was recently released. (Click image for a full-sized version.)

A reviewer over at didn't like it, but I can definitely see this poster hanging on my wall. That's not an endorsement of the movie. There are numerous scientific inaccuracies in the trailer, including the construction of what appears to be the Egyptian pyramids thousands of years before they were actually built. The director, Roland Emmerich, is fond of throwing pseudoscience in his movies. His last film, The Day After Tomorrow, was based on a book written by a paranormal radio talk-show host and a writer of several "non-fiction" books about UFOs.*

That said, I have no problem with the movie as long as it's marketed as a fantasy rather than a realistic take on Ice Age society. Still, I imagine that paleoanthropologists and archaeologists are going to need to spend a lot of time separating the fact from the fiction for the public.

10,000 B.C. has a release date of March 7, 2008 "A.D." Ain't It Cool News has already posted an advance "spy" review for those of you who don't care about spoilers. The official web site is

* The Day After Tomorrow was very similar to a 1979 disaster novel titled The Sixth Winter by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin, so much so that I find it hard to believe that the writers of movie were not aware of it. The book also is about the sudden onset of an Ice Age, and both feature storms that instantly freeze people and killer wolves. Pick up the book if you ever stumble across it in a used-book store -- it's a fun little read.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ratha's Courage out later this month

Via comes this news: The fifth book in a series about the adventures of a clan of intelligent prehistoric cats is coming out this month.
"Ratha and her clan, the Named, are sentient prehistoric big cats. In Ratha's Courage, the first book about the Named since 1994, Ratha extends the use of the Red Tongue—fire—to a hunter tribe. One of the hunters ignites a blaze that sets off a devastating conflict between the two clans. Now Ratha must find the courage within herself to set it right."
I've honestly never heard of these books, although they sound interesting. The series is set in the ancient past and features several prehistoric mammals. That creature the cat is riding on is almost certainly an Indricotherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived. Apparently several of the original books have been republished so readers can see where it all started.

The books are written for young adults, so you will most likely find them in the children's section of your local bookstore. I really can't say anything more about the novels, but the author writes on her web site that the fictional species of the series is evolved from Dinaelurus, which was a cat-like nimravid rather than a true cat.

Ratha's Courage is scheduled for release on Oct. 18, but it looks like the reissued novels may be out in stores now.

The official web site of the series is

Saurian Safari! by Chris Peers (2002)

Note: This is a review of the second edition of the rules.

Rest in peace Wade Hackett, for we barely knew you.

Wade, you see, had been my safari guide for three hunting trips to the Mesozoic. He had successfully led the first two expeditions in and out of the Cretaceous period without a scratch, racking up a nice collection of dinosaur trophies along the way. But during a trip to the Jurassic, a pair of allosaurs spotted the hunting party and charged it. Wade’s gun misfired just as one of the allosaurs reached him, and before the other party members could react, the beast was carrying away his lifeless body in its mouth.

Of course, we only know this because one of the expedition members had written it down in his journal. The surviving members of the hunting party were attacked and slaughtered by a trio of ceratosaurs as they made their way back to camp. All that was found afterward were a few bloodstains
on the ground and several crushed weapons with spent casings beside them.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Dinosaur Safari! is a dinosaur hunting game published by HLBS. It is a miniatures game, meaning it is played with little figures on a table set up to simulate a natural landscape. It also is a lot of fun, although the rules could use some polish.

Players assume the roles of Victorian-era hunters out to bag the biggest game of all time. There is a nice variety of animals to choose from in Saurian Safari!, from dinosaurs to prehistoric mammals, and the rules come with several scenarios that let gamers tailor the hunts to their own preferences.

Saurian Safari! is a cooperative game with the players working together to bag an animal instead of competing against each other. All animal moves are based on reaction tables, so there is no need for a “game master” to oversee animal encounters and the game can be played completely solo. Players will need a d20 set of dice to play the game, as well as the appropriate miniatures.

One downside of Saurian Safari! is that actions take several dice rolls that eat up time. Shooting an animal, for example, isn’t simply a matter of rolling the dice to see whether you hit it. You also have to roll to see whether your character spotted the dinosaur, whether the gun knocks your character down, whether the gun misfired and whether the bullet managed to penetrate the dinosaur’s thick hide. While I appreciate the realism, I wish these actions could be determined with fewer rolls.

The rules themselves also have a lot of gaps and players will need to make up their own rules to fill in the blanks. Luckily, there is a sizable online community dedicated to the game with many helpful suggestions.

The biggest problem with Saurian Safari! is that there are not many miniatures of prehistoric animals available. There are plenty Victorian-era figures for sale and the miniatures world is awash with fantasy creatures, but gamers don’t seem to be interested in real animals. Several internet forums suggest using plastic dinosaur models, but nearly all the models I found were either too small or way too big. I just downloaded pictures of the appropriate dinosaurs from the web and turned them into paper cutout figures, which worked just as well. Also, be warned that miniature gaming can be an expensive and time-consuming hobby. Players need to build their own landscapes from scratch, and miniature figures can cost quite a bit of money and almost always need to be painted.

That said, Saurian Safari! is a fun game once you get into it. Hunts are limited only by the players’ imaginations, and the scenarios and settings can be tinkered with so that no two hunts turn out the same. There also is a certain feeling of exhilaration in facing a rampaging dinosaur and bringing it down with a well-placed shot just seconds before it would have trampled you. Just don't always expect to make it back alive, as poor Wade found out.

  • Saurian Safari! features a make-believe “dinosaur gun” you can choose as a weapon for your hunts, but apparently there were real dinosaur guns made for the movie Jurassic Park: The Lost World. They were actually elephant guns, and according to this article, director Steven Spielberg is alleged to have kept one of the guns. (Thanks to Bob Mozark for pointing out this interesting little tidbit.)
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