Nicole Gunther-Perrin, single mother and transplanted Californian, is having the worst week of her life. Her deadbeat ex-husband heads to Cancún with his girlfriend without paying child support, her child care provider quits, and she’s passed over as a partner in her law firm in favor of a male colleague. In desperation, she makes an offering to the two Roman gods on the plaque by her nightstand, and wishes for them to take her back to their time… a time when society wasn’t so sexist, nor life so artificial and hateful.
Overnight, her wish is granted, and she awakens to the overpowering stench of Roman Carnuntum, a frontier town of the Empire, in the year 170 AD. Not only has the scenery changed, but her body’s no longer her own: she has now become Umma, a widowed tavernkeeper with serious family problems and a steady boyfriend who desperately needs a bath. Umma is also a slaveowner, a fact that angers Nicole to no end – wasn’t life supposed to be more equitable back then? In addition, hygiene is practically nonexistent, and entertainment includes watching wild animals kill each other. Still, most people she meets seem content with whatever life offers them.
Nicole is surprisingly ignorant of Roman ways of life – one would have hoped that a person with her education would have realized that Roman women hardly men’s equals and that slavery was common. This is a minor problem with what’s otherwise a thoroughly engrossing novel. Although most of the book simply describes Nicole/Umma’s day-to-day existence, her life would hardly be easy for a twentieth century person to adjust to – and it’s these details which prove fascinating. Not only do I have a clear image in my mind of Umma’s tavern, but I can almost taste the high-quality wine she serves to her better customers. Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove are bestselling novelists in their own right, and their compilation brings out the best in both authors. Don’t let the subgenre of this novel turn you off, as this is easily one of the best novels of Roman times that I’ve read in a long while.