Alternative history novels are always intriguing, because they let us indulge in "what if?" What if an historical event hadn't happened, or happened in a different way with different consequences? The favorite possibility-rich scenarios of alternative historians seem to be "What if the South had won the Civil War?" and "What if the Nazis had triumphed in World War II?" In Peshawar Lancers, S. M. Stirling explores what the world would be like if the British Empire still dominated.
In the novel, the world as we know it took a turn in 1878, when a devastating shower of comets struck the Earth, from Moscow to the western Atlantic Ocean. Because of a climate shift caused by the tons of debris in the atmosphere, those people not killed by the impacts or resulting tsunamis began to die from starvation, cold, and the collapse of civilization. A massive migration to the south took place. In England, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli organized an exodus -- the removal of as many people, supplies, and national treasures as possible to the British territories in India, South Africa, and Australia. Queen Victoria and the British government were evacuated to India and began to rebuild the Empire.
Now the year is 2025, and the Angrezi Raj (the British Empire in our timeline) rules much of the "civilized" world from its capitol in Delhi. The Imperial empire encompasses all of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, with viceroyalties in southern Africa and Australia and garrisons in the wilderness lands of Britain and North America. Its people coexist well despite the numerous different races and religions, but things are not entirely peaceful. Fierce Afghan raiders require constant military action on its northwestern border. The Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic Russians are an ominous presence to the north. The Dai-Nippon Empire is strengthening in Asia, and the Muslim Caliphate is an ever-present irritation to the west. Only the nation of France-outre-mer, along the Mediterranean in southern Europe and northern Africa, is a possible ally.
Suspicions are raised when separate attacks are made on twin siblings Athelstane and Cassandra King. Athelstane is an officer on leave from the Peshawar Lancers, who patrol the Afghan border. Cassandra is an astronomer traveling by airship from Delhi to Oxford to work with the Analytical Engine (a supercomputer of sorts). The Kings are sahib-log-landowners of English heritage, with no idea why they would be targeted for death. When a second attempt is made on his life, Athelstane and his orderly, Narayan Singh, join forces with the Political Service (think CIA) to find out why. Cassandra is sent to safety as tutor to the Imperial Princess.
Athelstane learns that Count Vladimir Obromovich Ignatieff, a Russian agent, has placed a price on his and Cassandra's heads. Ignatieff has in his possession Yasmini, a True Dreamer, who has "seen" that the deaths of the Kings would trigger the downfall of the empire, and he is gathering various anti-Raj forces to bring that about. When Yasmini escapes her Master, she runs to warn Athelstane of the plot against his family and the Royal Court. That sets Athelstane and his band of allies on a race across India to stop the conspiracy.
Stirling has the gift of rich, detailed description that makes the Anglo-Indian culture come to life on the page, providing a fascinating backdrop to this exciting tale of intrigue, battle, and romance in a world that could have been. (K.C.)