Harry Turtledove

Caezik SF


286pp/$27.99/December 2023

The Wages of Sin

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Harry Turtledove begins the novel The Wages of Sin with an unrepentant exploration of chattel slavery in the sixteenth century, when Portuguese slave trader Filipe Sousa purchases a group of slaves in Africa. One of the slaves is a particularly attractive woman and Turtledove leaves no doubt of her fate, being passed from slaver to slaver before eventually being sold to an owner who would no doubt continue her abuse. However, Turtledove makes it equally clear that she is patient zero of an AIDS epidemic that will change the course of history. Once that point is established in his first chapter, Turtledove jumps to his main story, set in Salisbury and London in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1851, Viola Williams is living in her parents' house in Salisbury, England, a typical young woman in a world wracked by "The Wasting." In the three centuries since Sousa inadvertently spread the disease to Europe, society has restructured itself in an attempt to limit its further spread, despite not having any way to treat it. Viola's father, Richard, knows better than most how limited medical knowledge is regarding The Wasting. As a doctor, he knows that he can mostly alleviate suffering, but do little to actually cure people, not just of the Wasting but of most diseases. He can treat symptoms and perform minor surgeries, but mostly he has to hope that people will get better. His daughter is aware of this, but, as with all women in this alternative nineteenth century, she is required to remain hidden in her house. If there is any chance of seeing a man, whether visiting her father or when she goes out to the market, he must dress in a form of niqab to keep the amorous attentions of men at bay. A strong-willed and intelligent woman, Viola longs for a freedom her society cannot provide.

Richard Williams's best friend in the attorney Alfred Drinkwater. The two men decide that Viola and Alfred's son, Peter, are of the right age to get married and would make a good couple, as well as joining the two families together, further cementing the men's lifelong friendship. Williams makes sure Viola knows that if she doesn't like Peter, who she vaguely remembers from her time as a child, when she was allowed to venture out into the world, he wouldn't force the marriage. The two meet in a supervised setting, decide that they could build a life together, and then Peter heads to London to study for the bar while Viola retreats to the women's quarters of her father's house, the two to carry out their relationship through the mail.

The novel offers two parallel stories. In one, Peter deals with daily life as a bar student. Apart from the stress of studying law when he feels like an outsider as someone from Salisbury rather than London, is dealing with his roommate, Walter Haywood. Haywood is studying for the bar at the bequest of his father, a wealthy tobacco merchant, so he can use his knowledge to help the family business. Haywood has little interest in the bar, instead preferring to spend as much of his time as possible exploring the London nightlife, not just pubs, but also the brothels that exist, despite the horrific nature of the Wasting. A libertine, Haywood views cases of the clap as a minor price to pay for fun and keeps trying to persuade Drinkwater to ignore his studies and discover life. Back in Salisbury, Viola does manage to find a life for herself. Interested in reading travel books, she decides to write a book of her own, a sort of Gulliver's Travels detailing the culture of the Temulcula, a race that exists on an isolated island off the western coast of North America. Safe from the Wasting, at least until they make contact with European merchants, Viola is able to imagine a society in which women have freedom of movement.

The Wages of Sin does a good job in depicting a world in which fear of a horrible disease has caused a radical change in the way European culture is set up. Turtledove focuses on two very contained areas, rarely leaving Viola's rooms in her father's house or the Inns where Drinkwater is studying. The outside world exists but it is to be feared and avoided as much as possible. Ironically, given their situations, Viola seems to have more interaction with the world outside her home than Drinkwater does. Turtledove depicts her going to market, the bookstore, and the local festivals while Drinkwater is shown studying in his rooms or playing chess in the common rooms. At the same time, the fact that Viola is writing a book may be as big an indiscretion as anything Haywood does when he leaves his rooms and forms a conflict that Viola and Drinkwater must resolve if their marriage is to happen.

There is little action in The Wages of Sin, but the characters are likable and their concerns are grounded in who they are and the world in which they live. Although Viola and Drinkwater seem to have the same goal: the wed and live a comfortable life with him providing as a lawyer, both characters also have their own goals, which may be at odds with each other and Peter finds himself in a cosmopolitan world far removed from the more idyllic Salisbury. Building a relationship through letters, the couple must figure out what the other is thinking when both are trying to put their best foot forward. In doing so, they must also determine if they can achieve the plans of their fathers.

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