The House of Daniel: A novel of wild magic, the great depression, and semipro ball by Harry Turtledove
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There's a lot of baseball in The House of Daniel, but not the kind you may be familiar with. The book is set around the time of the Great Depression, which for baseball players meant that a lot of the lower-level minor league professional clubs folded. Semipro teams featuring local players who happened to live in the area were the norm, as well as barnstorming traveling teams - some with big-name players since they didn't get paid millions like today's stars. Outside of one organized tournament, the baseball in this book is the kind played by a traveling team against a different small-town semipro team every day.
Money, or lack thereof, is a constant theme - unsurprising in a Great Depression-era story. Jake "Snake" Spivey, our narrator, is grateful for his athletic ability to play center field well enough to earn money at it, since other jobs aren't easy to find. Even so, the opportunity for a little extra cash leads him to fall in with the wrong crowd. He gets lucky when the House of Daniel traveling team happens to need a center fielder after an injury, giving him a chance to make better money while also leaving behind some of his own problems.
As is usual with a Turtledove book, there's a lot of actual history mixed in with the more fantastic elements. There was a traveling team called the House of David which formed the basis of the House of Daniel team, and many of the towns and ballfields are based on those that actually existed back in the 1930s. References to the wider world are sprinkled through the book, from mention of the "War to End War" (this being before WW II) to Weeghman Park (our narrator not yet knowing that it was renamed Wrigley Field).
The world of The House of Daniel is also one of magic, where wizards work alongside engineers and vampires roam the night. This affects the story only in fairly minor ways, aside from one big dangerous event around the middle of the book. Most of the time, Jack takes the magical side of the world in stride and describes it no differently than the more mundane aspects. Honestly, I didn't think the magical aspects added anything to the story - you could have replaced it all with equivalent mundane activities without changing much. But it doesn't hurt, either, and I'm guessing Turtledove enjoyed putting in zombies and elementals and chupacabras.
As a fan of both baseball and alternate history novels, not to mention just about anything Turtledove has ever written, The House of Daniel was right up my alley. I had a great time reading about the little details of the team's games as well as following the larger story arc. Those who aren't as much into either baseball or the concept of an alternate history may find that the amount of detail is overwhelming, but that won't bother those familiar with how Turtledove works.