S.M. Stirling is a master of alternate worlds. In his Nantucket trilogy, the island of Nantucket and all its inhabitants get mysteriously transposed with the island’s bronze-age counterpart and must figure out how to live in this strange new–or old–world. In his Emberverse series, Stirling explores what happens to the world left behind by the disappearance of Nantucket, a world where the laws of physics–specifically, energy reactions–are now completely changed. No more gunpowder, no more internal combustion, no more electricity….even steam engines no longer work. Welcome to the Dark Ages, take II. The Sky People and its sequel In The Courts Of The Crimson Kings introduces an alternate solar system where our early space probes to Mars and Venus found civilizations there in the vein of tales told by Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Don’t worry–all of these will get posts in time, I promise!) And in The Peshawar Lancers we are treated to an alternate version of our world, eerily changed.
Stirling’s vision for The Peshawar Lancers is of an Earth that was struck a devastating blow by a series of meteors in the 1870s, completely rearranging the development of society in the subsequent years. In the face of effects similar to the nuclear winter we lived in fear of for forty years, British PM Benjamin Disraeli moved the seat of the British Government–and as much of the British infrastructure as he could manage–to India. The French are now centered in Algiers, the Japanese and Chinese have merged their empires (or the Japanese took over China–its unclear which), and Russia is now a theocratic state ruled by the Czar but controled by the priests of Chernobog–understood by most of the formerly-western world as well as the Ottomans to be Satan–and their cult of cannibalism. Now it is 2025, and society in the Angrezi-Raj (British India) has progressed in many ways to paralell our early 1900s in terms of technology and social change.
Another area Stirling shines is his ability to handle an ensemble cast. We are herein treated to the story of Athelstane King and his sworn companion/servant (because this is India and that’s how it works) Narayan Singh trying to survive long enough to figure out why assassins keep popping out of the woodwork. And we have King’s sister Cassandra, a prominent astronomer working on a project to guard against another Fall, whose person and project are both coming under mysterious attack as well. The Imperial Prince Charles III thinks he has issues keeping his sister Sita from getting into (serious) trouble now, dealing with tantrums about being forced to marry the French prince. When the $#!^ hits the fan, he’ll wish for such simple problems….Why is the sinister Russian Okhrana agent Count Ignatieff targetting the King family for his evil schemes? And what is the deal with Yasmini, his elf-like slave girl? Without giving away plot points, all these characters’ disparate plotlines will be drawn together into a grand adventure such as might have been written by H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Stirling is one of those rare authors who is able to write from the perspective of his characters without his own beliefs influencing them unduly. As a result, I have little to no idea of his personal beliefs in almost anything. But that’s okay. The characterization of his worlds and their people are all the better for this skill. This is a man who writes not for any political or social aim but for sheer adventure. It makes perfect sense that a British Empire based in India would eventually syncretize Hinduism and Christianity to some degree. It makes sense that eating beef would become taboo, even for the British-descended folks. (Keep in mind that this differs from the real British Raj in one very important way–in our past, the British were there as an outpost. In this story, India is the seat of the Empire.) This allows him to treat all his characters and their belief systems with respect, only offering criticism through other characters and even then sparingly. Here Stirling writes Hindu, Christian(ish) and Muslim characters, in the Emberverse novels a major character is a devoted Wiccan. Stirling? I suspect he’s an atheist or agnostic, based on his seeming lack of opinion, but that doesn’t put me off reading his works.
Now to content: language, sex, violence….its all here. Not in copious amounts, but its here. There’s even a tiny dose of the occult mixed in with the addition of the Satan-worshipping Chernobog cult. I don’t recall much language in this book, but I do in other Stirling books so that may just be my memory playing tricks again. Also, a good deal of it is non-American swearing (British or Russian, primarily….at one point a character yells “Bugger sportsmanship and sod you!” to his opponent.) There is a healthy amount of violence all through the book, usually not too gory, but occasionally a little disturbing depending on different circumstances. Also, Athelstane King is a British hero in the James Bond tradition. There is sex. Not really explicit, but not shied away from either. And as used here, it is (at least usually) an important element in either plot or character development, so there’s really no getting away from it.
I cannot stress enough how much fun this book is. I seriously recommend it to all of you.