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The novel of empire was almost dead. After the Second World War, as Britain divested itself of its colonies there wasn't any place for tales of derring do in the service of the Empire. No space for Buchan, no space for Kipling. So S. M. Stirling reworked the world, and gave us a in The Peshawar Lancers a tale of the white man's burden from a world we never knew.

In the 1870s a swarm of comets devastates the Northern Hemisphere. The firestorms and tidal waves devastate Europe, and the chill that follows finishes off any chance of recovery. As darkness falls on civilisation Disraeli organises a desperate evacuation of the remnants of Britain to India. Now, over a century later, a rescendent British Empire is the recovering world's superpower.

But it's not alone. To the north the remanant Russian states worship a dark god, and rush to hasten the fall of man. To the east a new industrial power is rising, and to the west the resurgent Caliphate is flexing its muscles. This is a dangerous time. Conspiraracies and rumours of wars are rife, and the Royal Family are prime targets. An alliance with the French is on the cards, an alliance that will increase Britain's power. It's an alliance its enemies want to prevent at all costs.

Athelstane King is an army captain with a talent for languages, and a flair for the unorthodox. Drafted into a covert mission he must find out why his and his academic sister's lives are in danger - and why they seem inextricably linked to a Russian seer and the hiers of the British Empire. It's a story that gives us dramatic events, great feats and danger aplenty. Can Athelstane save the day, and his King? And why is his sister in danger? Is it something to do with the Empire's grand plan to save the world from another fall? He must go out into a 21st century of Babbage engines, airships and steam trains armed with stout friends and quick wits. What can stand in his way? He's a British officer, doing his duty for God and the Empire.

Stirling has given us a ripping yarn, firmly in the traditions of Kipling and Buchan. This is a fast and enjoyable read, a romp through a world both familiar and strange. This isn't high literature, nor does it pretend to be. It hearkens back to the penny dreadfuls, the worlds of Bulldog Drummond and Biggles, the books of Sax Rohmer and John Buchan - for Stirling has given us a classic British popular novel of the 1930s, all wrapped up as 21st century science fiction.

So how can we summarise this melange? Steampunk meets the Boy's Own Story, illuminated by Flecker and the Pre-Raphaelites? Whatever terms we use, there's one point we need to remind ourselves off: Stirling has written a classic adventure story that's both fun to read, and an interesting intellectual excercise in alternate history. And on a cold winter day, that's probably all we need to know.

A fun, light read. It's as if the penny dreadful had never died...


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 22nd, 2003 01:14 am (UTC)
Interesting to compare your reviews (I've read neither book) of this and the Nemo one. I would say, though, that if Stirling has hit the Drummond or Rohmer marks, he must've missed the Kipling/Flecker/Buchan one, and by failing to, he'll have probably contaminated how I think of the latter trio. I'd trust Stirling a little more with Kipling than I would (say) John Ringo (still not much), so there's the whole thing of how do you react when someone holds up something you like and by their admiration for different things in it shows that they've taken something from it you'd never thought was there?
Jan. 22nd, 2003 02:18 am (UTC)
I think there are elements of all of them in there.

It's almost as if Stirling has written a homage to all the great 1930s British adventure novels in a single book. I could point at scenes that had a wonderful ring of Kipling (and in some cases Kipling as written by George McDonald Fraser), caper scenes that were straight from The 39 Steps, and aerial derring do that could only have been written by someone reared on Capt. W.E. Johns, and with bad guys from a Steven Spielberg movie where Indiana Jones was facing off Fu Manchu. All wrapped in "The Golden Road To Samarkand" and the "Merchants of Damascus".

I loved it.

It's a book I loved.
Jan. 22nd, 2003 02:48 am (UTC)
Selectively quoting...
...Kipling as written by George McDonald Fraser), caper scenes that were straight from The 39 Steps ... with bad guys from a Steven Spielberg movie ... "The Golden Road To Samarkand"
I think that's exactly what I mean. That's not my Kipling, The 39 Steps is not the best Buchan (and it's irredeemably contaminated by those films), and it's certainly not the Flecker of "To a poet a thousand years hence" or "The old ships".

I'm not saying it's a bad book - it's just one I don't want to read. And to the extent that you've saved me the price of a book I might well have bought (or borrowed from autopope) and hated, it was a good review.

Whew! I had no idea that Kipling, Buchan and Flecker still held their places amongst my lares et penates. I should thank you for that, too.
Jan. 22nd, 2003 02:51 am (UTC)
Re: Selectively quoting...
Ah, I understand. Just like Anderson's Nemo was not my Verne.

(BTW, the MacDonald Fraser scene I was referring to was the retreat from Kabul in the first Flashman novel...)
Jan. 22nd, 2003 03:29 am (UTC)
Re: Selectively quoting...

I'd not thought of Flashy's retreat from Kabul as having a particularly Kipling-y flavour, so that's another onto the "to read" pile. Luckily I'm unlikely to feel compelled to re-read the entire series with Flashman (as opposed, say, to Patrick O'Brian).
Jan. 22nd, 2003 03:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Selectively quoting...
it's irredeemably contaminated by those films
your view of it might be, but the book itself is still just fine ;-) and it's nice to see how many reissues are coming out. Buchan, Dornford Yates, Henry Cecil - all ready to entrance again
Jan. 22nd, 2003 11:48 am (UTC)
I agree - a wonderful book, swashes well-buckled, upper lips well-tightened, and all that.
Adventure, romance, fashion, detective work, alternative sociology and alternative science. All sorts of fun ingredients, well mixed.
Jan. 22nd, 2003 05:04 am (UTC)
Interesting, A Second Opinion/Recommendation
Had this recommended to us by a friend, whose tastes in reading and style of writing are almost as far from the ravens' as they can be and still exist in the same writers' group. Your description rather explains why J would recommend it. And probably why it won't join the pile of things to read: our enjoyment of derring-do ends at Rider Haggard and obscure bits of Stoker. (Does that sound snooty? It's not meant to be.)

How does it compare to "Island in the Sea of Time"? Failed to read the complete trilogy, though, found the first volume interesting enough to get to the end. Just wasn't, quite, convinced: the characters weren't real enough, maybe?

Intrigued by the thought of steampunk illuminated by the Pre-Raphaelites [also quoting selectively]: Babbage engines built by Wm. Morris? Now, that would be something...
Jan. 22nd, 2003 03:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Interesting, A Second Opinion/Recommendation
at least one of the characters in Island was based on a real person! There's a fabulous scene in the third book where Arneson explains (spoiler!) to Odysseus who he would have been by reciting the Odyssey
Jan. 23rd, 2003 02:00 am (UTC)
Bating Odysseus: that's almost got us interested enough to persevere.
Mar. 12th, 2003 03:28 am (UTC)
Re: Interesting, A Second Opinion/Recommendation
Well, I've just finished The Peshawar Lancers. It's a lot better than I'd feared. And while it's not quite Kipling, it's a long way from Rohmer/Sapper, being (and I'm surprised to be saying this about Stirling) not racist enough - except against the Russians, of course.

It's better than most of Stirling's AH - far less sex, and that little off-stage: so people who read him for the ObSM Lesbian scene will have been disappointed.

If it reminds me of anything else, it's The Two Georges, although the big fight at the end has resonances of Mike Rohan's Cloudcastles.

Oh, and the strange religion the Russians have taken up is at least based on fact: the Yezidis of Northern Iraq worship Satan in the form of a Peacock. The same faith also turns up in Patrick O'Brian's The Letter of Marque, but in a much more reasonable form.

[Digression: are the Yezidis of Northern Iraq and the Sabaeans of the Southern Marshes part of the reason the Americans want to invade?]
Mar. 12th, 2003 03:49 am (UTC)
Re: Interesting, A Second Opinion/Recommendation
Hmm. The fors are definitely beating the agins. May yield to democratic forces and read it. Satan in the form of a peacock rather reverses the fiery red colour scheme one usually associates with Old Nick. An extravagant blue devil. Cool.

As for the digression, I've been wondering for a bit which "side" would be more (most? how many sides do we have here?) likely to exploit the fact that dear old Mijbel in Ring of Bright Water came from those same southern marshes and that (assuming there are any otters left after Saddam's devastation of the region) either we ought to invade to liberate the otters from tyranny or we shouldn't encourage warfare that further contaminates an already fragile region.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )