NESFA Members' Reviews

coverThe Peshawar Lancers

by by S. M. Stirling

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Tor, 2002, $23.95, 421 pp

This was a real treat!

In 1878 fragments of a comet or asteroid slammed into the Earth, wiping out northern Europe and North America and covering the whole planet in nuclear winter for several years. England was spared a direct hit, but was rapidly became uninhabitable: Disraeli moved a quarter of England's population to India.

It's now 2025, 150 years after the Fall, and we're following Athelstane King, a young lieutenant in the Peshawar Lancers, an elite unit which guards the northwest frontier of the Raj against Afghan tribesmen and Russian nastiness. Is this just the Great Game all over again?

Yes and no. Stirling has imagined a detailed and fascinating society which is an amalgam of English and Indian. John II is King-Emperor of India, Australia, South Africa and many lesser dominions, but their greatest antagonist is Dai Nippon, an empire created when Japan conquered China. (Both were spared direct hits, but suffered terribly in the famines which followed.)

The English have been changed as much by India as India was changed by the English. The Anglican church, the Established Church of the upper classes – never a hotbed of piety – has absorbed so many Hindu concepts that it thinks of itself as worshipping God in one of his ten thousand attributes. (This, incidentally, was probably the least realistic aspect of the whole society. I can easily believe that the upper classes would let their religion drift that far, but most of society would not tolerate that. The split between the Established Anglo-Hindu Church and the plethora of reformed churches which would have popped up would be one of the major splits in society. I think this probably reflects Stirling's personal feelings more than a realistic extrapolation.)

The Raj is republican, but not at all egalitarian. It has a Parliament which runs the Empire, but King John has somewhat more real power than Victoria did. The countryside is still very much run by the gentry (in most of the country) and by the native aristocracy (in areas which remained loyal to the Raj during Second Mutiny in the aftermath of the Fall – those which were disloyal were destroyed and replaced by an English aristocracy). In effect, the English have become yet another caste in the age-old system.

Science and technology is much less advanced in this post-Fall world. Beyond the telegraph, electricity doesn't seem to be used, and railways are still the dominant mode of travel. A few motor cars exist, and there is some dirigible-based air travel. The only area where science is not stunted is in the biological where we are told (but not shown) that it is nearly the equal of ours and ahead in places. (This is not very plausible, but it makes for a beautifully lush and romantic setting.)

Society in general has not changed as much as it should have for 150 years – think of it as a somewhat updated version of Kipling's Kim and you'll be right on the mark. It's lush and exotic and really rather attractive in its way. (This is not very plausible, but it makes for a beautifully lush and romantic setting.)

Athelstane, slightly wounded in a fight in Afghanistan, is on R&R back home and is attacked – twice – by assassins and learns that his sister, Cassandra King, one of the first women to receive a PhD in Physics from Oxford (a new Oxford in Kashmir), has also been attacked. What's going on?

There is a good deal of action and Athelstane tries to get to the root of this. He and his sister both get mixed up with the Royal family and with the Political Service, the shadowy secretive service branch of the Raj. It soon becomes clear that the Russians are after him and his sister for unknown reasons.

The Russians are definitely the bad guys of this world. After the Fall,  many of the survivors in the hard-hit Northern Hemisphere resorted to cannibalism. This is not the Done Thing and peoples descended from cannibals – including the natives of Britain which the Raj is trying to recivilize – are still discriminated against. The Russians, though, didn't just practice cannibalism, but made it part of their national religion when in the immediate aftermath a crazed Orthodox Patriarch and an equally-crazed czar took to Satan worship and dragged the remnants of the Orthodox Church and Russian Empire (now located in the Stans, the southeastern part of the FSU).

These Russians make a particularly nasty enemy. Their power is much reduced relative to the Raj, so they are forced to work entirely through espionage and in fomenting war between the Raj and its neighbors.

They do have one tool that the Raj lacks: In the terrible years after the Fall, the Czar's agents came across a nun who could prophesy with some accuracy. With ruthless logic, they sought out and found others and bred them until more than a century later they had a small number of young women who could see the alternate timelines following from an action. (The tool was terribly limited since they only gained the power at puberty and all went mad by the early 20s at best.)

Evidently one of these seeresses has warned the Russians secret police that the King family, if not removed, will do something important. So they must die.

Since neither Athelstane nor Cassandra are at all easy to kill, they set out to find and destroy the Russian agents who are hunting them.

The story is nicely handled. As in An Island on the Sea of Time, Stirling again manages to avoid the pointless violence which has marred so many of his earlier books – there's fighting, but it's right and proper for the story. The characters are engaging, the scenery lush, and the ending both happy and fitting to the story.

Highly recommended.

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