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...