THE PESHAWAR LANCERS
by S.M. Stirling
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In The Peshawar Lancers, S.M. Stirling postulates a world in which a series of comet impacts in 1878 resulted in the devastation of much of Europe and North America, leading to a completely different twenty-first century populated by a French government in North Africa, a cannibalistic Satan-worshipping Czarist régime in Russia, a continuation of the Caliphate in the Middle East and an extension of the British Raj in India. As the title of the book indicates, the majority of the action in the novel takes place in the British Raj, the most powerful empire in the world as the novel opens in 2025.
Stirling’s main characters are the brother and sister team of Athelstane and Cassandra King (interesting, many of the supporting characters have regal last names as well: Ibrahim Khan and Narayan Singh). Athelstane is a Captain in the Peshawar Lancers while Cassandra is a physics professor who finds herself thrown in with the Imperial heir, Charles, and his sister, Sita. As the novel opens, it becomes clear that someone has been pursuing a vendetta against the King family for several generations.
Both Kings begin investigating these attacks separately and manage to uncover a much larger conspiracy which threatens not only the stability of the British Raj, but could plunge the twenty-first century world into the first World War.
While The Peshawar Lancers is not a melodrama, many of the characters who populate the novel are more like archetypes than like individuals. All of the heroes are intelligent, generous, and competent while their adversaries are evil (to the extent of being Satan worshippers, traitors and cannibals), ruthless and degenerate. Nevertheless, since the characters are less the focus of the novel than the events and, even more, the setting, their lack of dimensions does not detract from the novel.
Stirling incorporates numerous sly comments and references into his story, such as the title of one of Cassandra King’s scientific papers, however they are neither frequent nor intrusive enough to give the novel a light demeanor. Instead, Stirling has written a novel of conspiracy and detective work, although his villain’s motives are never made particularly clear.
One of the problems which recur in Stirling’s novels is that he seems to attempt to include every piece of information which his research has uncovered. Although this can, and does, lead to a deeper, richer texture for the work, it also results, at times, of tedious factoids. Perhaps the worst example of this in The Peshawar Lancers is the inclusion of numerous phrases which gained currency during the period of the British Raj. While this adds flavor to the dialogue, Stirling often includes words without a useful context. The addition of a glossary to the five appendices would have alleviated the problems this causes to some extent.The Peshawar Lancers has its problems, but represents in intriguing exploration of a portion of an alternative world. In many ways, it seems like a thought experiment by Stirling as to how to continue the nineteenth century Great Game into the twenty-first century. Although he doesn’t completely succeed, he has produced a novel which is a functional combination of “steampunk” and diplomacy with less warfare that a reader might expect from one of Stirling’s novels.
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