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Stadiums and sorcery The House of Daniel'

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Novel brings together baseball, magic and the Great Depression

Sports fiction is a tricky business. Recreating the visceral, visual splendor of sport in the context of a compelling narrative presents a number of potential pitfalls, all of which could effectively result in a swing and a miss.

Baseball is perhaps the most literary of American sports. It has a rich and checkered history, filled with character and controversy plenty of material from which a writer might pull. There's room for broad satire (Philip Roth's 'The Great American Novel') and intimate drama ('The Art of Fielding' by Chad Harbach) alike, but there's not a lot of margin for error the line separating good baseball fiction and bad baseball fiction is extremely thin.

Introducing elements of the fantastic only serves to further complicate things, though when it works (think W.P. Kinsella, or Bernard Malamud's 'The Natural') it REALLY works.

Now alternative history icon Harry Turtledove has taken the field with a baseball book of his own. 'The House of Daniel' (Tor, $24.99) takes a look at a 1930s America that looks familiar in many ways as it suffers though a Great Depression. However, there's one big difference between this America and ours.

In this America, magic works.

That's the America where Jack Spivey lives. He's scuffling along in the town of Enid in Oklahoma. Just about everyone is scuffling along in the aftermath of the popping of the 'Big Bubble' back in 1929. Thousands of people are out of work not least because employers have realized just how cost-effective zombies are.

It's not just zombies, either; wizards and werewolves, vampires and demons this America is a magical one.

Jack makes a few bucks playing center field for the Enid Eagles, one of the scores of semipro teams that dotted the country in the days before big league baseball was bi-coastal. He also supplements his income by performing 'favors' for Big Stu, one of Enid's less savory characters. But when Jack can't follow through with one such favor allowing a person of great interest to Big Stu to get away he's in a conundrum. If he goes back to Enid, there's no telling what might happen to him.

Serendipity leads Jack to a local ballgame featuring the House of Daniel, a noted barnstorming team rendered unique by two things their affiliation with a Wisconsin religious sect and their long hair and beards. An unfortunate on-field incident leaves the House of Daniel short an outfielder; while Jack isn't the greatest to ever swing the bat, he's deemed good enough to join up.

What follows is a meandering journey through the American West as Jack and the rest of the team move from town to town, playing exhibition games against local semipro teams and splitting the gate. Through Texas and New Mexico, the team makes their way toward Colorado for the legendary Denver Post semipro tournament before continuing through to Oregon, Idaho and ultimately California.

Turtledove has always had a remarkable knack for tweaking the familiar and extrapolating his way forward into a world that is compellingly close to, yet markedly different from our own. This magically-infused America is just one more example.

However, what makes 'The House of Daniel' such an interesting read is how that world is portrayed. Jack Spivey has always lived in a world of magic; it is so familiar that it almost seems mundane at times. And that's fantastic magic is just another part of life, and far from the most important one. Occasional references are made to things like vampires (mostly pests) and elementals (in constant negotiation with wizards and engineers regarding resource usage and development) as well as the odd conjure man trying to help the home team beat the House of Daniel but for the most part, magic and its impact remain largely in the background.

(There's one pretty significant exception; you'll probably see it coming thanks to Turtledove's dropped hints, but still no spoilers.)

Again, the Kinsella comparison seems fairly apt, though his work leans more toward magical realism, while Turtledove falls more into fantasy. Still, the two are in line on one thing baseball is the centerpiece.

And there's no disputing that 'The House of Daniel' is definitely a baseball book with fantasy themes, as opposed to the other way around. The games are lovingly and meticulously detailed, all from the perspective of a guy who knows that he's never going to be more than a pretty good ballplayer. The on-field action and the off-field camaraderie that's the focus of this story. It's a look at the baseball world in the days when St. Louis was the furthest west MLB outpost and radio and television had not yet achieved prevalence. The days when every town had a team of its own, one that played for a few dollars, yes, but mostly for bragging rights.

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