Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW
Stirling, S. M.: The Peshawar Lancers. New York: Roc, 2002. 421 p. Bound. $23.95.
Alternate history seems to be all the rage in SF literature these days. Harry Turtledove is its best-known practitioner, but S. M. Stirling seems to be running a close second, particularly after the Nantucketer trilogy.
Stirling started out (as many these days seem to) sharecropping in other people's universes, mostly for Baen. He struck off on his own with the Domination of the Draka, an alternate universe in which a particularly virulent form of South African apartheid is becoming ... well, universal; I never did manage to read that series, having gotten too nauseated partway through Marching Through Georgia, though I may eventually return to it. More recently he gave us a modern Nantucket suddenly stranded in the Bronze Age, a world to which -- even though the original trilogy is now complete -- he may return some day. (In passing, I would also recommend Eric Flint's 1632, which is a variant of the Nantucket stories, but set during the Thirty Years' War.)
In The Peshawar Lancers Stirling -- with a nod to some of the great authors of Anglo-Indian fantasy of the past -- takes us into the year 2025 in a world where most of European and North American civilization were wiped out by a comet strike in 1878. The British Empire has, however, picked up -- stumbling, if not running -- in India, and now a New Empire or Angrezi Raj, still reigned over by Prince Albert's House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, dominates about half the world from a capitol in Delhi, though it is not without its own internal frictions. Technology is progressing, though it has now barely reached the level it would have attained a century and a quarter earlier in our world; motor vehicles are rare, air travel is by hydrogen-lifted airship, (1) and there are occasional steampunk incursions (rod-and-cam-driven Babbage engines).
Cassandra King, sister of Peshawar Lancers subaltern Athelstane King, (2) and one of the first women to graduate from Oxford (which is now found in the Vale of Kashmir rather than in Britain, which has only recently been recivilized), is engaged in an astronomical project one of whose purposes will be to look for future impact dangers from the heavens. (3) But it appears that somebody is trying to kill both Cassandra and her brother Athelstane, and also kill the project -- and it may be the same Count Ignatieff agent who caused their father's death many years earlier. Count Ignatieff is agent of a Russia that now occupies the southern tier Islamic republics rather than Russia proper, a Russia that, in the years after the comet, was forced like the Donner Party to turn to cannibalism and which now, as part of its newfound worship of Chernobog (Satan), has evolved that necessity into a virtue and a custom. And Count Ignatieff has an asset not available to the Raj -- a young woman, Yasmini, who can see across world-lines and predict the results of every different action, an ability that will eventually drive her insane unless someone (for instance, a young and chivalrous English subaltern) comes along to help her in the only way that she can be helped.
The story, as is common with Stirling, switches back and forth between various points of view, carrying us from the on-leave King's attempt, with the aid of his boon companion Narayan Singh and a "casually" acquired Pathan assassin, Ibrahim Khan, to track down those who attempted to kill his sister and did succeed in killing his mistress, over to Cassandra, who mixes science, rock-climbing and romance with the ruling Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family, to Henri de Vascogne, emissary of the North African Napoleonic kingdom of France-outre-mer, sent to India to arrange an alliance between the heir to the French throne and Sita Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a headstrong and often thoughtless young woman -- more romance.
Probably the most interesting part of the book -- at least to me -- is the background of a British Empire that has been and is being thoroughly Indianized. Stirling makes no bones about this. The members of his royal family, for instance, pay considerably more than lip service to the various divinities of the Hindu pantheon, including a deified Benjamin Disraeli. The standard, though not only, English of the empire -- which is spoken not only in India but in recivilized Britain -- has been so heavily infiltrated by terminology from the Indian languages that it would not be comprehensible in modern America, for instance (Stirling goes into some details in an appendix); the reader should quickly pick up some of the terminology, or he won't be able to make heads or tails out of the book. In particular, the term "sahib-log", which is used over and over again, means "ruling folk" (the "log" is also found in Kipling's Jungle Books; e.g. the bandar-log). On the other hand, it is perhaps safer to take Stirling's terminology with a grain of salt; in particular, he _consistently_ uses the term "kyashtria" instead of the correct "kshatriya" for the Hindu warrior caste. (4) The term "rakasha" (p. 352, e.g.) may be an acceptable variant of "rakshasa". Interestingly, the correct term for the subcontinent in a number of its native languages -- Bharat -- is nowhere used in the book.
This is a stand-alone novel, and may not be followed by any others; but a single unexplained comment by Yasmini in extremis (p. 353) suggests that this is not the case. I would guess, however, that -- because of the nature of Ignatieff's plot against the Raj -- any future volumes will return not to the same characters but to later generations of the same family.
All in all, a fun story. If you're not a Stirling fan, wait for the paperback -- but read it then.
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