by S. M. Stirling
$7.99; 483 pages
I picked up this book because Stirling co-authored several of the books collected in The Prince with Jerry Pournelle. I hadn't ever read a solo work by Stirling, so I was curious. I have had mixed success with Pournelle's co-authors. I tried reading a book by Niven, and while I liked it, I only liked it, I didn't love it. I picked up a work from Michael Flynn on the same day I bought this one, and I couldn't even finish it. I like Flynn enough to read his blog, but so far I've started but not finished two of his novels.
This book I loved. I'm going to go get more of Stirling's work, because this is everything I look for in a book: adventure, psychological insight, and a love of history and place. I also want to live in the world of the book. Not really, since most of the population of the Earth starved to death or was eaten after a comet hit in 1878, but Stirling has created a world where the Victorian age lasted an extra 150 years in the technological and cultural stasis the comet wrought.
You can always tell you have entered an alternate history when the airships show up. We see hydrogen dirigibles, difference engines, and an England with all the power and self-confidence of the Victorians, that never endured the morale-sapping Great War or de-colonization. Except without England, since they de-camped for the colonies once it became clear that winter wasn't going to end anytime soon after the comet hit.
I get a very Kipling vibe from The Peshawar Lancers, the love of a foreign place, adopted wholeheartedly as one's home. I wanted again and again to turn to a map of India, or to look up the history of place, or a caste, or a god. Like bored little boys everywhere, I learn history and geography better if you spice it up with a battle here or there. I think I like alternative history and historical fiction so much because the real world is so much more interesting than fictional ones, unless you are Tolkien. Stirling has all the color and pageantry of India to work with, and he does it well. He only had to make up one religion for this book, and it is really just an old religion with a new name. I never could find the religions in so many science fiction and fantasy books sociologically plausible. For example, in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, you have a whole world that is just like ours, except without the religions that gave it shape. You have the chivalry of Westeros, who somehow act just like Christian knights, without the Christianity. There have been polytheistic mounted cavalry, they just act different.
Stirling doesn't have that problem, because he can just describe Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians as they are (or were), and let all that history give him as much backstory has he could ever need. Throw in some science, some history, some philology, some intrigue, and you have a hell of an adventure. Highly recommended.