In the late 1870’s a string of meteors hit Earth, destroying cities, changing the environment and reversing the course of history. Acting on the advice of her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria authorised the evacuation of as much of London as possible, relocating in India. A hundred and fifty years later England is a backward wasteland of cannibalistic savages, and technology has for decades taken a back seat to survival, so boats are steam powered, cars are a novelty, and flight is only by dirigible. The British Empire, now centred in India, rules over most of the globe, while the Imperial Czar heads Russia and is the other major world leader. Eventually there will be a significant conflict between the two super powers.
His Majesty King John II has a loyal army, with no more dedicated soldier than Captain Athelstane King. As a chain of events unfold, Captain King will play a pivotal role in the outcome of not only a covert plot against the British Empire but also in the lives of the royal family.
I’ve enjoyed all of Stirling’s alternate history novels, preferring his Change series to the Massachusetts trilogy but finding all of them quickly absorbing. This is unusual for me – I have most often found alternate history fantasy overly militaristic and dull. While neither of these qualities apply to The Peshawar Lancers, I did find it considerably less accessible than Stirling’s other work. Part of this is undoubtedly because of the more significant world building required - the other series consist of present day Americans either going back in time and changing events themselves, or going forward after the world is changed for them, whereas this novel is set in a world that has diverged from ours at a significant point in history.
There are several interweaving narratives and I found it difficult, particularly at the beginning, to keep track of when we were, what was happening, and how the characters and plots connected. I think some of this would have been eased had Stirling written a prologue then jumped forward instead of having the nineteenth century events and response appear as the vision of a twenty-first century psychic. Similarly, while it makes sense within the context of the novel that place names would have changed, a table of comparisons and perhaps a map of who controls where, would have been helpful, along with a glossary of Indian words – while some of them were evident from the text others weren’t, and I’m sadly monolingual. Stirling has included a list of the King Emperors of the post-Fall British Empire and five appendices – a detailed description of The Fall and its effects, a timeline of the exodus and post-Fall aftermath, a description of the Angrezi Raj/British Empire, some notes on Imperial English and other languages (focusing on pronunciation), and an explanation of technology and the economy. Some of this information would have been more useful at the beginning rather than in retrospect, and some of it I found irritating – I appreciate thorough and internally consistent world building but (like sausages and laws) don’t want to be aware of how it’s done.
Perhaps it was that my expectations of Stirling were a little too high. Certainly I enjoyed The Peshawar Lancers, at least for the most part, and I did finish it with a smile, but for the first half of this ~460 page (plus notes) book it was something of a struggle and on a couple of occasions I persevered primarily because I had no other books available. Fortunately I’ve found two more novels in the Change series, so this will not be my last Stirling experience. - Alex