I can imagine the room I should have read THE PESHAWAR LANCERS in - a private library on an English estate, cozy with dark wood wainscoting and red leather. There would also HAVE to be a stuffed head or two – elephant, tiger – something to go with the tea and the other object d’art that would subtly proclaim India. Colonial India. Perhaps the room is the book in my mind, with a few artistic black and white photographs of the main characters, each in a frame that suits their personality and place.
I’ll start with Athelstane King, Captain of the Peshawar Lancers, one of the landed gentry, someone you want on your side in a fight. Then there is his sister Cassandra, one of the few women that has a university degree, and in astronomy at that. But her motivation is to ensure that through her work, perhaps the next Fall can be avoided.
The Fall? In 1878 a series of meteors crashed into Earth, from Moscow the band spread eastward, hitting Europe, a major impact in the middle of the Atlantic, and ending in North America. With the resultant tsunamis, the Northern Hemisphere was decimated. If you weren’t drowned in the waves, then there was the fallout from the changed climate. With the diminished sunlight and warmth, crops were scarce and when you compounded the problem year after year, populations fell.
Fortunately Prime Minister Disraeli had an ingenious plan. He arranged for some British subjects (aristocracy first) to survive in the sunnier colonies of India, South Africa and Australia. Now, in the year 2025, the world is a different place – one in which King-Emperor resides in Delhi and the worst enemies of the New Empire, discounting raids from neighboring Asiatic tribes, are the Mikado, the Caliph of Damascus and the Czar of Russia. In fact, the only way a large part of the population in Russia survived was through cannibalism and they have turned to satanism. But for some reason, they seem to be keeping step with the Empire as far as technological innovations, though no one knows how as they do not have the resources.
Perhaps it has something to do with the True Dreamers and the fact that someone is out to kill both Capt. and Cass King.
The siblings soon find out that someone is a Russian named Ignatieff and his True Dreamer, Yasmini is able to see threads of the past, present and future, enough to tell him that the two must be eliminated if his plans are to succeed. Cass is hidden at court as a tutor to Princess Sita and is introduced to Prince Charles and Henri, the ambassador from France-outre-Mer (which ranges from Sicily to Algiers and beyond). Capt. King has his own allies, including his faithful right hand, Narayan Singh, a Pashtun warrior named Ibrahim Kahn, and inherited from his father, the aid of a powerful Jewish family.
Into the mix comes spy master extraordinaire Wharburton, who sees them through a fantastic journey via airship, train, motorcar, with swashbuckling swordfights, disguises, mystery and romance.
Alternative history doesn’t get much better - meticulously researched, thought out and planned. Combined with detailed characters, epic scale, intrigue and adventure, what more you can ask for from a novel?
In particular, the attention paid to language is extraordinary. From the blending of British and Indian cultures comes a mixed language that is still stratified by location, both geographical and social, and even more unusual because it had to be hypothesized from an imagined apocalypse and then aged for a few generations. The more you know about India and its culture or even Asian history, the more you will enjoy this book.
Perhaps prophetically, the big showdown happens in Afghanistan and the caves that shelter the protagonists are currently playing a part in our own strand of history. Regardless, this is a great novel, and as I add The Peshawar Lancers to my shelf, I pause at the irony. I’m reading an American-published book, written by a (half) Canadian, about the British who take refuge in their Indian colony. Is that a kangaroo I see or just a hallucination brought on by colonial fever?
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu