by H.N. Turteltaub



380pp/$25.95/December 2003

The Sacred Land
Cover by John Blackford

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The third of H.N. Turteltaubís novels about the Rhodian merchants Menedemos and Sostratos literally covers new grounds as the pair and their crew of oarsmen head east to Phoenicia in The Sacred Land.  This novel follows the cousins from Rhodes, where Menedemos enjoys his annual escape from his overbearing father and voluptuous stepmother, to Cyprus and eventually to Phoenicia, where the cousins separate as Menedemos remains to conduct business while Sostratos goes into the land of Ioudaia to find Engedi, the home of balsam.

For readers who have already enjoyed the first two voyages of Sostratos and Menedemos, there will be much in The Sacred Land which is familiar,  However, Turteltaub is more than happy to play with the readerís expectations, and he shows both Menedemos and Sostratos acting in manners different from those previously demonstrated, due to an agreement in one case, and emotion in the other.

By separating his main characters and then having them come back together, Turteltaub is able to more clearly show how each has changed by his experiences.  The cousins are able to understand each otherís obsessions a little better for being apart.  Menedemos, especially, is shown to have changed, especially when Turteltaub focuses on his personal life following their return to Rhodes.

By having Sostratos pass through the lands of Ioudaia, is able to comment on the vicissitudes of history in a very interesting manner.  In the modern world, Jerusalem looms large, as does its historical role.  In the world inhabited by Menedemos and Sostratos, it is a tiny backwater, important only to those who live there.  The much more important loci of trade, such as Sidon, Salamis and Rhodes have traded place with Jerusalem in their importance.  While Turteltaub is correct in his portrayal, he does practically ignore Alexanderís visit to Jerusalem several years earlier.

Sostratosí visit to Engedi (modern Ein Gedi) demonstrates one of the weakness, not just of The Sacred Land, but of all the books in the series.  Although Turteltaub provides a basic description of this oasis near the Dead Sea, he doesnít provide a travelogue feel to the passage.  Similarly, the sights, sounds and smells of the various cities, from Rhodes to Salamis to Jerusalem are all pretty generic (although his description of Sidon does bring out more of the cityís unique character).

For an historical novel involving the amount of travel The Sacred Land includes to work, the author needs to give the reader more of a feeling that the reader has visited the exotic places the characters visit.  While Turteltaub provides the vistas, they donít always come to life as well as they could.  Instead, the focus is on the particulars of the economy and trades that Menedemos and Sostratos participate in.

Turteltaubís word is populated by interesting characters who quickly gain the affection of the reader, even the (assumed) bandit-turned-sailor Teleutas.  Even those figures who appear only fleetingly seem to come to life, whether the sex-starved innkeeperís wife, Emashtart or the balsam merchant Eliphaz.

With his characters ensconced back in Rhodes, Turteltaub has set the stage for next yearís journey in Owl to Athens, when the traders visit the intellectual center of the Hellenistic World and Sostratosí own personal Mecca.  Given that Turteltaub has portrayed Sostratos as being familiar with Athens, it will be interesting to see how the flavor of the city is brought out.

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