Just Finished Reading: The Peshawar Lancers by S M Stirling (FP: 2002)
Britain was lucky. When the spray of comets hit the Northern hemisphere on October 3, 1878 it was spared most of the devastation suffered by the rest of Europe. But they did not get away scot-free. As the crisis unfolded Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was presented with a stark option – save as many as he could in England and risk total disaster or move a small percentage of the population to India and other outposts of the Empire relatively unaffected by the disaster.
148 years later the Empire has survived and is beginning to reclaim much of its fabled heritage. Now, with its capital in Delhi, it is a force to be reckoned with on a global stage. But it is an Empire surrounded by enemies, the dark and bloodthirsty Russian Empire dedicated to death and chaos and in the Far East the twin Empires of China and Nippon. Preparing for the inevitable conflict is Athelstane King, Captain of the Peshawar Lancers an elite unit of mounted warriors who guard the edges of the Empire against tribal incursion. On his return home from a successful campaign he is attacked in his apartments by trained assassins and only escapes due to hard fighting, good fortune and the efforts of his second in command. In the process his concubine is killed and King vows revenge against whoever commissioned the killers. King is enraged further when his sister, one of the rare scientists at the new Oxford University is apparently targeted in a terrorist attack. Needing to understand why his family is seemingly marked for death, King takes up a request to join the Imperial Secret Service and finds himself thrown into the centre of the Great Game where death is around every corner and the stakes could not be higher. For if King fails in his mission not only will the Empire fall but humanity itself will be destroyed.
I’d gone off Stirling a while back when I started having problems with his underlying political philosophy in some of his latest novels. But, as I was reading a selection of Alt-History anyway I thought I’d give him another chance. I was understandably relieved therefore to find that right-leaning politics in this example was hardly noticeable at all (apart from the whole Empire business but not even then really as the new Empire was multi-ethnic if rather un-democratic). The story itself is a heady blend of old-fashioned 19th century adventure novel, steam-punk and James Bond all rolled into a fast paced, intelligent and often fascinating tale. Interesting and well-drawn (if somewhat wooden) characters vie for attention across impressive landscapes, skin of their teeth escapes, the schemes of implacable and highly motivated baddies and the threat of the end of the world! This is a book of total escapism which will transport you away from the ‘real’ world into one populated by strange but strangely familiar people fighting for a world that never came into existence. A great fun read. Recommended.