The Shadow of Albion
by Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill
Tor, 1999, ISBN 0-312-86427-2
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This is a fantasy set in an alternate early 19th century England, in which the Stuarts still rule (Charles II having been succeeded by his son rather than his arrogant and pig-headed brother), and the Lord Protector of the American colonies is Thomas Jefferson, Earl of Monticello. This book is the first of a projected series whose intended length is unstated, but th e series title is Carolus Rex, which is suggestive: in this book, in 1805, the king of England is Henry IX, and his only son is Prince James.
But none of these characters are our protagonists. The book opens with Sarah Conyngham, Marchioness of Roxbury (a peer in her own right, apparently slightly more common in this world than in our own), dying of her own foolishness in getting soaked and spending another few hours enjoying herself rather than getting inside and getting warm and dry. Unfortunately, this England can't really afford to be without the Marchioness of Roxbury; the Old People still walk the land, and England's safety depends in part on the promises that exist between Roxbury and the Old People--and Roxbury at present has no heir to take up the responsibility. So a replacement Roxbury is needed, and one is found: one Sarah Cunningham of Baltimore, in the USA, from our world. With her parents dead, she has traveled to England to live with a distant cousin, and en route from Portsmouth to London she will be killed in a carriage crash.
Except that, of course, the dying Roxbury and her allies intervene, and the two Sarahs change places. With her own memory temporarily suppressed and a few of the late Marchioness's allies working to fill in her "memory" of the dead woman's life, Sarah Cunningham, with some bewilderment, takes up her new role.
That's the set-up. The plot, like the plots of many good regency novels, involves a plot: specifically, a plot by an ambitious Catholic lord to prevent the Prince of Wales' marriage to the Danish (and Protestant) Princess Stephanie, and instead marry him to his niece, thus bringing England back into the Catholic fold. There is, of course, also a parallel French plot (yes, Napoleon's career is much the same, in this world) to prevent the Danish marriage and draw Denmark into a French alliance, to become a platform for a French invasion of England. Prince Jamie is being encouraged by the Catholic plotters to resent the Danish betrothal and the Danish princess, and he also wants to have Adventures, specifically to go fight against the French--a prospect which naturally appalls the king, who doesn't have a spare heir handy. So in addition to forbidding any such hare-brained plans as joining the fighting, King Henry wants the Danish princess to have the right kind of social backing when she arrives, so that she won't become so socially isolated that Prince Jamie's resistance to the marriage gets popular support.
To that end, he wants one of the most influential women in society, the Marchioness of Roxbury, to be Mistress of Robes. For that, she has to be married. No problem; she's betrothed--a childhood betrothal--to the Duke of Wessex, who happens to be one of King Henry's most loyal men, and a covert agent of the Crown. (He's ashamed of being a spy, of course, being an honorable man and a creature of his culture, and even more ashamed of the fact that he enjoys it.)
Wessex and the faux Roxbury don't like or trust each other, and the fact that she has absolutely no memory of the formal renewal of the betrothal, which supposedly took place when she was sixteen, strengthens Sarah's previously weak and vague suspicions that something is very strange, and she's not who everyone thinks she is.
It's from this point that things start to get complicated. Recommended if you like regency novels.