by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Whenever Harry Turtledove takes a break from his various series to write a stand-alone novel, it is a moment to celebrate for his fans. Fortunately, there is much cause for celebration in Ruled Britannia, an alternate history set in 1597, nine years after a successful Spanish Armada deposed Queen Elizabeth and set up a Spanish queen, Isabella, and her continental husband, Albert, over the British. After nearly a decade of foreign rule, many Englishman are chomping at the bit to regain their nation’s sovereignty, and they are more than willing to use a playwright named William Shakespeare in their dangerous plans.
As the novel opens, Shakespeare is approached by two men, Lord Cecil, one of the few surviving advisors to Queen Elizabeth, and Don Diego, the military governor of England. It seems King Philip of Spain will soon by dying and both men want Shakespeare to write a play to be performed upon his death. Don Diego, of course, wants a celebration of the monarch, “King Philip,” while Lord Cecil commissions Shakespeare to write a treasonous play about the Celtic queen Boudicca, to rally an uprising following Philip’s death. Throughout the novel, Shakespeare works on both dramas, without knowing which one will eventually be produced. Showing Shakespeare's creative process, and portions of these plays, Turtledove makes the reader wish to see them performed rather than being lost Shakespearean dramas.
Turtledove tells his story through the eyes of two men. The first, William Shakespeare, will be known to all of his readers, while the other, a Spanish playwright named Lope de Vega, while historical, is probably not as well known. Lope’s role in the novel is to help sniff out treason against the Spanish overlords and specifically to discover whether the suspicions about Shakespeare are true or baseless.
Turtledove brings the theatrical world of the late sixteenth century to life. Through Shakespeare, Turtledove shows the reader the details of writing, censorship, rehearsing, costuming, and performing plays in England. By including a Spanish playwright, he is able to give the reader an understanding of the Spanish theatre as well, which differed in its styles and traditions.Turtledove once again demonstrates his ability to present historical dialogue, in this case Elizabethan, in a way which makes it accessible to the modern reader. Shakespeare, de Vega, and their compatriots come to life through there speech. Not all readers will appreciate the dialogue, and it does put some obstacles in the way of character relationships. When characters speak angrily to each other, there is frequently no sense of animosity, merely of good natured ribbing.
Ruled Britannia sets forth a world different from ours, but recognizable, both in the period Turtledove uses (the late sixteenth century) and in our own period of seeing how civilians must live under repressive régimes. Shakespeare and his theatrical troupe's willingness to put their lives on the line for freedom and sovereignty speak across the years from Elizabethan times to the modern time.
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