Harry Turtledove,
Every Inch a King
(Ballantine, 2005; Del Rey, 2007)

In 1913, the newly autonomous state of Albania invited Prince Halim Eddine of the Ottoman Empire to become its king. Rumor has it a German circus performer named Otto Witte claimed the crown instead. In Harry Turtledove's Every Inch a King, acrobat Otto of Schlepsig and his friend, the sword-swallowing Max of Witte, bring this masquerade to life.

Taking a page out of Voltaire's Candide, Turtledove's protagonist narrates his journey toward kingship amidst a sea of acerbic commentary on the world's diverse inhabitants. However, whereas Voltaire's satire mocks the world's cruelties impartially, Otto of Schlepsig takes it upon himself to enumerate the various faults of each race present in Turtledove's universe, and incidentally in 20th-century Europe, separately. Not to say mankind as a whole escapes without its fair share of criticism, but the main thrust seems to bear on the prejudices associated with nation-states and patriotism.

At the apex of these travels Otto finds himself, not in the Utopia discovered by Candide, but in Shqiperi, where "no one in his right mind" would go. What the place lacks in wisdom and beauty, it makes up for by crowning Otto king. No vision of total peace and plenty can exist in a novel so closely tied to this world's history, but the possession of even the least respected kingship in Europe provides numerous reasons for Otto to think himself in paradise. He owns a harem, an army and a proper royal treasury. Yet, even these very human desires cannot last any more than an earthly utopia. Otto reigns a mere five days before he must return to his former life, where he finally reaches the same conclusions about happiness as his classic predecessor.

While it lacks both the biting clarity and the fast-paced balance of Voltaire's classic, Turtledove's novel makes up for it by being a much more mellow read. If the personal insults are more memorable than the general ones, they are also more amusing. If the hero tends to ramble about nonsense when he's not making the author's points, it makes him a more relatable character. And if the appearance of dragons and wizards seem slightly out of place in modern European countries, well, the novel is technically set in Shqiperi and its surroundings. A somewhat complicated read, it maintains a light-hearted cleverness bound to keep readers engaged, and a story that's hard to put down.

review by
Whitney Mallenby

3 November 2007

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