The House of Daniel by Harry Turtledove
Genre: Alternate History/Urban Fantasy/Baseball
Serives: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (April 19, 2016)
Length: 336 pages
Rating: 3 stars
Harry Turtledove has been one of my favorite authors since I purchased The Misplaced Legion in 1987. Since then, he has led me through his Videssos Cycle (Byzantium history played out in a fantasy world), Gerin the Fox (good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery), Tosev (World War II and its aftermath IF aliens had invaded), Darkness (WW II fought in a fantasy world), American Civil War (What If the South had won the Civil War), The Hot War (What If the Korean War turned atomic), and now introduces me to The House of Daniel, where he takes a look at semi-pro baseball in a the Depression Era of an alternate world United States.
This alternate America is a place of magic. Zombies, werewolves, conjuring men, vampires and earth elementals all call it home. And before the “Big Bubble” burst in 1929, the world was filled with a lot more magic — and its wonderful benefits. Not so much now though, because the magic isn’t quite so plentiful, and when it dried up, most of the jobs and most of the prosperity dried up with it. I mean, who’s going to pay a guy to do a job when “Zombies work for nothing, and you can’t get cheaper than that.”
At least in Enid, Oklahoma (where our main character, Jack Spivey, lives) that’s how things are, turning every day life into one big struggle. A guy has to be willing to do a little of this and a little of that to pay the bills. Anything that will put a few coins in your pockets. So along with his other activities, Jack is center fielder for the Enid (Oklahoma) Eagles: a semi-pro team. They travel around the area, play a little ball every week; no real career in it, mind you, but on a good night with a great gate, Jack can make ten bucks or so. More than enough to help catch up on his back due rent and feed him a few times.
But baseball alone isn’t enough for Jack to get by, so he also does a few jobs here and there for a local underworld boss called Big Stu. (Jack doesn’t like it, but the money is too good to pass up.) One job he agrees to do for a hundred bucks (A Year’s wages!) is to rough up the kid brother of a guy who hasn’t paid back Big Stu what he owes him. The boss wants a message sent. No one has to be put in the ground, but they do have to bleed — a lot actually.
So when the Enid Eagles arrive in a neighboring town for their baseball game, Jack goes to make a visit before opening pitch, determined to get this messy business behind him before he plays ball. Only problem being when the guy Big Stu wants rough up opens the apartment door he isn’t a guy at all, but the cute younger sister of the guy who won’t pay back Big Stu!
Not able to make himself hurt this innocent girl who is about his own age, Jack advises her to run away. Far away. Realizing he is now on the wrong side of Big Stu, Jack decides he can’t go back to Enid and needs to also run away. Fate then lends a hand as he gets an opportunity to play for the House of Daniel (a barnstorming baseball team). These guys have long hair and bushy beards; most of them come from a religious community of some sort; and, damn, they can play some ball. It is the perfect getaway for Jack, as he is soon swept away from danger and thrown into the wild, wonderful world of semi-pro baseball.
It probably goes without saying that this is a baseball book. Harry Turtledove has consistently said The House of Daniel was inspired by his love of baseball, and that deep respect certainly shows in Jack Spivey’s story. The narrative following him from small towns to big metropolises, as he plays the Grand Old Game; each city, its team, and its stadium drawn in loving detail; the individual games broken down into emotional, nail-biting play-by-plays for all sports lovers, highlighting why so many people (even in this fantasy America) view baseball as America’s Pastime.
Interspersed between each game, there are certainly other events transpiring. Interludes in this barnstorming tour, if you will. Times when Jack interacts with his teammates, learns about other beliefs and views besides his own. There are fights, arguments, even a Great Zombie Uprising to live through. The team worries about earth elementals ruining an away game. But baseball is intertwined in every one of these things in some shape, form, or fashion, keeping the focus on the game and the men who play it here in this novel.
What I enjoyed most about this story was Mr. Turtledove’s writing style. To tell this tale, he chose a first person narrative; Jack Spivey basically recounting his time barnstorming with The House of Daniel, recalling all that he went through, all that he learned. This approach giving the tale an almost Andy Griffith Show quality; Jack’s good, ol’ boy attitude turning the entire adventure into a genuine, feel-good sports story.
My only criticism of The House of Daniel is that it had A LOT of baseball and not much magic. Honestly, there are detailed accounts of the important parts of most baseball games; Mr. Turtledove bringing a realistic look at how these old time games would have gone; and Jack’s daily life is filled with traveling to a game and playing a game, making baseball the focus of his life. What readers do not see much of is magic. Sure, this is an alternate earth where magic is said to exist, definitely magical creatures wander around, but magic isn’t present very much in ordinary life, isn’t mentioned nearly at all, and remains largely an afterthought much of the time. In fact, for most of the novel, I completely forgot this was a fantasy world, which did bother me a little.
The House of Daniel is novel which all lovers of baseball and sports stories in general will adore. It has heart, passion, exciting games, and a character who truly loves what he is doing. To say Mr. Turtledove captured the spirit and essence of Depression Era semi-pro baseball in this book is an understatement, because he didn’t catch it at all he slammed it over the fences and is still trotting around the bases taking a bow to the crowd for this home-run. While I would have liked magic to be more of a focus in this story, Jack Spivey and his barnstorming baseball team still won me over, turning me into a cheering fan much of the time, but I must warn you that if you’re not a big fan of baseball, this novel might not be for you.
Tor Books provided this book to me for free in return for an honest review. The review above was not paid for or influenced in any way by any person, entity or organization, but is my own personal opinions.
No, I’m not big on baseball, but this one sounds intriguing and fun enough that I may have to give it a go. Thanks for your insights, this was very helpful!
I have to admit, I am not a fan of baseball, so this one hasn’t appealed to me too much. But, it does sound like it could be good.
If you don’t enjoy baseball at least a little, then this one is definitely not for you.