Like all alternate history novels, and like all sf in general, this one consists of two main elements: the setting, and the story. In this case, the setting is superb and the story is good.
In 1878 the Earth was struck by a series of astronomical objects: perhaps comets, or separate fragments of a single comet. The impacts (known as the Fall) destroyed cities and killed masses of people directly, in a trail running from Russia through Europe to North America. Tidal waves caused further destruction. Subsequently, the Earth's climate was severely disrupted for years.
As a result, throughout the 20th century northern Russia, Europe, and North America were largely depopulated, thinly inhabited only by primitive tribes.
Britain suffered extreme cold and lack of food, due to the effects of the Fall and the interruption of the Gulf Stream. Three and a half million people escaped by ship to other parts of the British Empire; the rest of the population mostly starved or froze to death. The British government moved to Delhi. After struggling to deal with the Second Indian Mutiny, it then successfully continued to rule India and the other parts of the Empire as before, having no serious rivals left in the world.
The events of the story take place in 2025, by which time the Empire has partially resettled the British Isles and has settlements on the coasts of North America and continental Europe.
The Imperial ruling class is British in origin but Anglo-Indian in nature, having being strongly influenced over the years by Indian language and culture; although Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa are also important parts of the Empire.
All citizens of the Empire, regardless of ethnic origin, can vote in elections to the House of Commons in Delhi — as long as they are male, at least 21 years old, literate and numerate in English, and possess a certain minimum level of wealth and income. This sounds rather strange and undemocratic to us now, but it's similar to the system used in Britain in the late 19th century.
Other forces in the world:
- The Japanese took over China and have started to become rivals to the Empire.
- The Caliph of Damascus rules an Islamic empire covering the whole of the Middle East and south-eastern Europe.
- Russian refugees from the north moved south and formed a new malevolent centre of power based in Samarkand. They worship the Black God and practise human sacrifice and cannibalism.
- Some French refugees escaped to Algeria and established a base there, from which they are starting to move back into southern Europe. They are seeking an alliance with the Empire.
- Afghanistan remains, as ever, precariously independent and dangerous to all comers.
- South America was relatively little affected by the Fall, but is hardly mentioned in the book; evidently no major powers have yet emerged there.
The Fall and its effects severely retarded technological progress. In 2025 the Empire leads the world — with late 19th-century technology, slightly improved. There are a couple of huge, mechanical, Babbage-style computers operating in India. The army uses rifles, but also swords and lances. There are Zeppelin-like airships but no aeroplanes.
The stage is set for a good old-fashioned adventure story in which the British Empire, represented by assorted patriotic young heroes, frustrates the knavish tricks of foreign rascals. And this is indeed what Stirling gives us.
The story is exciting and well paced; I found it hard to put down, although this is a book of 458 pages plus appendices.
It has various important female as well as male characters, plenty of action, and even an element of the paranormal. The Russian secret weapon is a small group of young women with an erratic ability to see into the future: not the future as it will be, but all the variety of possible futures resulting from different decisions in the present.
The alternate world (in fact northern India, mostly) is described in some detail, and quite plausibly, including descriptions of scenery. I don't know whether Stirling has spent time in India, but he seems to have researched it carefully, and there are plenty of words of Hindi and other languages thrown in for local colour.
I enjoyed this book and can recommend it to anyone who likes alternate history or, say, Rudyard Kipling. Stirling isn't a writer of Kipling's quality, but he visits similar territory and does it very competently by the standards of modern sf. Like Kipling, he seems to regard the British Empire as a force for good in the world, while describing its Indian subjects with sympathy and respect.
I can think of a few criticisms:
- Although he's a Canadian with an English mother, Stirling lives in the USA and has the typical American fascination with weapons and combat. There's no open war in this book, but there are frequent armed fights described in detail. They're a valid part of the story and not excessively gory, but may be too much for readers of a gentle disposition.
- A related point: most of the characters, including the women, are adept at using weapons. Perhaps this is plausible in the circumstances; but I have a lurking suspicion that Stirling may consider people without fighting skills (such as me, and most of the people I know) to be rather contemptible and not worth writing about.
- The female characters are somewhat varied, but the male characters are mostly your standard hero type, rather lacking in complexity and variety. Even the chief villain is the standard hero type gone bad.
- All of the significant characters are either Good or Bad; but maybe that comes naturally in this kind of story. At least, in this book, you can't tell whether someone is Good or Bad simply by skin color nor even by nationality.
Shikari in Galveston (2002)
Stirling has written only one other story with the same setting as The Peshawar Lancers: Shikari in Galveston is a novella that you can find, with three other novellas by different authors, in the collection Worlds That Weren't.
It's less recommendable than the novel, having a plot that's both simple and rather implausible. But, if you liked the novel, this is a bit more of the same world, and gives you a taste of life in the wilds of North America, populated by tribes of various skin colors, all at a medieval level of technology and society.
The Empire has a settlement at Galveston, and from there 22-year-old Lt. Eric King of the Peshawar Lancers sets off on a hunting trip into the interior. The date is presumably near the end of the 20th century, because Eric King will later have a son whom we meet in 2025 in the novel.
Written in September 2006