S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers

imageIn 1878, a series strike of asteroids the earth, impacting in the Atlantic Ocean. The debris in the atmosphere causes a winter that lasts for nearly a decade, seriously affecting Europe as the Gulf Stream ceases to be, and massive flooding wipes out America, so that other civilizations of the Northern Hemisphere collapse. Britain endures by relocating itself to India in a selective mass migration to the subcontinent, planned by Prime Minister Disraeli and led by Queen Victoria. Britain as a society and as a people is saved, but the new empire is more Indian than British even though they think of themselves as being British — Just watch for the meal eaten in an early chapter by Peshawar Lancer Athelstane King: curries and other Indian food are the only things served!

The much more Indian than English culture is a brilliant re-visioning of British history that reads like vintage Poul Anderson, particularly his Dominic Flandry series. It features rugged heroes — male and female — vivid combat scenes, exotic locales, and truly evil villains. Hell, it even has Babbage machines, the great analytical engines that Sir Charles Babbage never built but which also play an important role in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

One hundred and fifty or so years after the asteroid strike, the world contains two superpowers and several other smaller empires competing for control of Eurasia and Africa, as there’s little of value in North America. The Angrezi Raj, as the British Empire has come to be known, centers in Delhi, India, and it rules nearly half of the five hundred million people living on the Earth. The Russians and the Nipponese are its main competitors for supremacy as France is but a pitiful shell of its former empire.

Not one, but two attempted murders occur at the same time. Needless to say, neither Peshawar Lancer Athelstane King nor astronomer Cassandra King, privileged children of the Empire, have a clue why someone would want them dead, yet more attempts on their lives will occur soon. Based on the vision of a true dreamer named Yasmini, Russian Count Vladimir Ignatieff believes that the deaths of the Kings would begin the end of the British Empire (and quite possibly the end of all life on Earth). But neither of the Kings will sit idly by and just wait for the assassins to succeed.

This novel rushes headlong from battle to conspiracy to court intrigue and romance blooming right back to yet another battle — you get the idea. It’s good, silly reading that has enough twists on history to make it interesting. And unlike The Difference Engine, which really, really suffered from a lack of coherence, The Peshawar Lancers is well-written.

The Peshawar Lancers is a detailed look at the late nineteenth century Indian subcontinent as if the British Empire was centered there instead of in England. The story line is multifaceted and provides much opportunity for the reader to get caught up in the adventure. However, fans of alternate history must understand that The Peshawar Lancers was apparently but the beginning of a series set in this universe: the novel leaves a number of plot lines unanswered. And yes, the boy gets the girl — all three boys get their girl! As I noted above, it does read like a Poul Anderson novel — not surprising given that the author dedicates the novel to the author. I for one will be eagerly looking forward to the next installment!

(Ace, 2001


I'm the publisher of Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. My current reading is the Wylding Hall novella by Elizabeth Hand, Simon R. Green’s Night Fall, and listening to Rita Mae Brown’s Crazy As A Fox. I'm listening to a whole bunch of new Celtic and Nordic new releases but I'll dip in my music collection for such artists as Blowzabella, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and Frifot as the weather stays nasty.

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