Wow. Turtledoves are apparently few and far between in the YA, which is what prompted me to read my first—and based on this one, last—Harry Turtledove ever. To be fair, he usually writes for the adult audience, so it's possible that his regular fare reads differently.
Anyway, Gunpowder Empire is the first book in the Crosstime Traffic series, which is his series written specifically for younger readers. The series has a great premise: scientists discover alternate timelines, which allows Crosstime employees to, you know, cross time to other worlds to trade, snag new technologies, and take advantage of untapped natural resources. Gunpowder Empire focuses on Jeremy and Amanda Solters, Californian siblings from the late twenty-first century who are in the Roman Empire—a version of the Roman Empire that never fell—with their parents for the summer.
Shortly after they arrive, their mother falls ill and is forced to return to their hometime. With their father. And shortly after that, all communications from the 'real world' cease, and Jeremy and Amanda are stuck in Agrippan Rome... maybe forever.
(Why the father didn't just send his kids home with his wife—after all, if they're responsible enough to leave alone in an entirely different timeline, they're probably responsible enough to get their mother on a trans-timeline shuttlecraft and then to a hospital—I don't know.)
It's quite possible that Gunpowder Empire will go over especially well with fans of John Grisham's Theodore Boone series, regardless of age: it's got that same sense of fuzzy nostalgia and tends to gloss over any uncomfortable issues by either providing easy solutions or just not mentioning them. More specifically, it's also similar to Theo Boone in that it's an often-didactic adventure with a distinct avoidance of any profanity or sex that stars amazingly judgmental young protagonists who see issues in black and white, rather than in shades of gray.
A few of my issues:
• The worldbuilding is mostly achieved through conversations like this:
Jeremy: Derisive comment about his mother's love of old technology, followed by a list of all of the new technologies she could have used instead.
Michael (Jeremy's friend): Reply commiserating about same, followed by a list of the difficulties of being the child of a Crosstime employee.
...or through the omniscient narrator, who often provides historical context and commentary followed by a description of Jeremy or Amanda's thoughts on how crappy Agrippan Rome is.
• Based on his behavior and maturity level, I assumed that Jeremy was about twelve until page 88: when I was informed that he was seventeen. A classroom scene, in which the teacher asks questions of high school students that would have made more sense in a middle school setting, added to my confusion.
• It's hugely repetitive. I GET IT: REAL WAR IS NOT LIKE A VIDEO GAME. Also, Amanda can't go to the water fountain without a few sentences about the impossibility of carrying a jug of water on her head, and Jeremy is unable to see animal pelts without a diatribe about the evils of the fur industry. (A diatribe, I should add, that is never tempered by a mention of the fact that this culture doesn't have access to synthetics, mass production, or a lot of the other conveniences that make it easy for us to stay warm bloodlessly.)
• I don't understand why, if these kids are going to be sent to another world by a zillion-dollar corporation, they aren't given any sort of formal training/education about the culture beyond implants that teach them the language. It's possible that my background in anthropology is making me especially twitchy, but Jeremy and Amanda walk around this book constantly bagging on the beliefs and customs of this other world, without any real attempt at understanding anything in a context other than through the filters of their own worldview. It comes off as creepily jingoistic, and as there's never any sort of growth on the part of either protagonist, it seems that that's all portrayed as a good thing. Yecch.
Book source: ILLed through my library.