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December 2002
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove
New American Library, Hardcover: ISBN 0451207173 PubDate November 2002
Review by Rob Archer
464 pages List price $24.95 
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At first glance, I was a little apprehensive about Harry Turtledoveís newest offering, Ruled Britannia.  On one hand, he is a wonderful author who I almost always enjoy; on the other hand most of my previous reading of the Shakespearean period consisted of high school English class and term papers.  Iím pleased to report that the psychological trauma of a forced five paragraph essay that soured my previous experience was insufficient to hinder my enjoyment of this story and I was swept into this world of prose much quicker than I thought Iíd be.

This story is told on two levels.  It is enjoyable on its own as a tale of intrigue, surreptitious behavior, and dynamically written characters.  This is how I initially approached it.  But the further along in the book I got, the more the story triggered memories of little things that I had read over the years.  Upon closer inspection of the time period and people that Turtledove is writing about, I discovered an entirely different angle to the tale.  In a fashion similar to many of his alternate history works that are set in 19th and 20th century America, there is a wealth of twists and ironies here that will ring familiar to those who are interested in the worlds of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Lope de Vega.

The story is based on the premise of an Inquisition in England, following a successful landing by the Spanish Armada in the late 16th century.  In our timeline, this battle was made famous as the point at which the Royal Navy (with the aid of some fortuitous weather) defeated the Armada and led to Britainís primacy on the seas for the next several centuries.  In the alternate history that Turtledove provides, Spain was able to land its powerful army and take control of the country.  As the Spaniards work to return Catholicism to Protestant England, they do so with a rather heavy hand.  It is in this environment that our story takes place.

I must admit, it wasnít until I started doing some independent research on the subject that I discovered that some of the characters werenít fictional but actually lived during this time.  I wonít divulge the details, but the author does include a historical note at the end of the story that explains some of this.  It is here that he also explains where the prose that makes up Shakespeareís writings during the story comes from.  It is a well thought out and largely successful undertaking that enabled Turtledove to make the developing plays seem genuine, and yet also fit the story.

As in his past works, the authorís specialty is in drawing the reader into a bond with his characters.  This is done by making them seem realistic and multi-dimensional.  The heroes are not without flaws, and the antagonists are not without merit.  Ironically, at times there is more of an emotional attachment to many of the Spanish characters despite the fact that they are the invaders in the story.   

I was happy to see a little less of the harlequin romance-like descriptions of amorous interactions that have plagued some of the authorís other works, though it wasnít gone entirely.  One other complaint might be the penchant for repeating plot points and character viewpoints too often.  While some repetition is necessary, especially in a book that juggles so many characters simultaneously (a specialty of the author), this could have been done a little more infrequently.  To balance these minor grievances, Turtledove was able to use Will Kemp to inject a bit of humor, much of it off-color, that was an excellent addition and helped to humanize Shakespeare and the rest of the troupe of actors.

Whether you read this story as just an interesting tale, or as an alternate history with many historical parallels, I would recommend Ruled Britannia.  It is a little different from much of what Turtledove has given us before, and a welcome addition to his booklist

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