S.M. Stirling,
The Peshawar Lancers
(Roc, 2003)

It's the 21st century, and everything old is just barely being discovered again. Most of the world operates at a pre-agricultural level. The British rule a vast empire centered in India, depending on their technological edge: airships, functional rifles, a massive Babbage engine. Defending this bastion of civilization are armies of proper and properly trained soldiers, including Lancer Athelstane King and his Sikh bodyguard Narayan Singh. Flying high above the strife is his sister Cassandra, one of the scientists who keeps this Angrezi empire at the cutting edge of technological development. And lurking somewhere in the shadows, hidden by the vast crowds of India, is the leader of an evil cult who will do anything to destroy their family, and civilization with it.

The story may seem familiar, and it is. The Peshawar Lancers is a grand old-fashioned Victorian adventure drama, complete with dashing heroes, loyal servants, Dark Mysteries and a truly evil villain in the service of a dark and mysterious god. There's an upstanding royal family, an abundance of infernal contraptions and the slight possibility that mysticism works.

S.M. Stirling doesn't bother trying to distract the reader or pretend for one page that he's not telling a grand adventure story. He sets the story in motion and then gives it room to sprawl. The Kings' attempts to survive their unseen enemy ultimately draws in the Empiral family, Prince Charles and Princess Sita; the prince of New France, the Russian Empire, the savage tribes of Afghanistan and the future of humanity itself. Not that any of this brings down the heroes' spirits; even when death is imminent and no reinforcements are in sight, Athelstane King and his friends maintain a cheerful outlook and civilized manners to a degree that's sometimes amusing, always touching and very old fashioned. There are no dark-souled anti-heroes or grey villains here, only fair-hearted fighters with occasional disagreements and outright monsters.

Though The Peshawar Lancers is an old-fashioned story, it's written by a modern author. Stirling doesn't try to hide his modern attitude, even while creating an anachronistic society. The most rewarding difference between Stirling's novel and a real Victorian adventure pulp is the number and strength of female characters. Cassandra King, Princess Sita, the tortured seer Yasmini and even Athelstane's barely met mistress are all brave and competent far beyond what their society clearly expects of them. They fight and scheme and dance alongside the men, quarrel with class when they're confined by stupid rules, and never seem like men in skirts, a problem too common in adventure heroines. And they don't exist just to create romances, any more than the men do; their missions, talents and skills may drive the story rather more than their menfolks' swordfights and armed battles.

And what battles! I often find myself dozing off during the fight scenes in a novel. The tension of life and limb at risk, the muscle-ripping effort of a real fight, have eluded some of my favorite authors. Stirling's fight scenes are riveting, detailed and important to the story. And there are consequences; characters wounded in battle don't instantly heal or manfully shrug off their wounds, commanders pay for bad decisions with their men's lives and every fight ends with a feeling of relief that anyone has survived. Each stroke and parry and gunshot is described, keeping the action clear and urgent.

The descriptions that give the fight scenes a gut-knotting intensity create beautiful descriptions that made the developments of India under the English Empire feel organic and believable. Sterling gives his Victorian adventure room in the modern world by violently altering history; a series of comets in the 1870s that nearly destroyed Western civilization, moving the English empire into India and changing the entire course of technological development. It could be hard to get across without a lecture, but Stirling shows the new course of history with every temple arch and cobblestone. The world of the India/English empire feels authentic, down to swear words and women's styles. The story is enhanced by the more detailed appendix histories, but not dependent on them.

The Peshawar Lancers ends the way any good old adventure story must. Evil is vanquished, Good triumphs with humor and class, and there's even a wedding parade. There are no really unexpected turns of plot; when you know the rules of adventure fiction, you know what has to happen. Stirling makes that expected payoff feel satisfying, a reward at the end of a dangerous trip. Though the ending may be somewhat predetermined, there's not a moment in the story when the heroes feel sure to triumph.

If old adventure stories make you roll your eyes and sigh deeply over the naivete of the worldview, if you watch action movie stunts and shout "that can't possibly have happened," then pass by the New British Empire and go on to more cynical, more modern stories. Those who still hiss the villain, cheer the heroes and want to explore strange new worlds without having to head for the stars will find no better ride than Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 15 March 2003

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