In a peculiar twist of circumstance, I ended up reading this book directly after Christopher Priest’s The Separation. Both are alternate histories, both are a blend of fantasy and science fiction – although Priest’s book won’t own up to the fantasy element. However, despite sharing the same genre, the overall approach and style couldn’t be more different.
This alternate history has Her Divine Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX on the throne and Her Majesty’s vast Empire is run by alchemy and superstition, while the Church and Court factions tussle over the dwindling supplies of magic. With deep dissatisfaction in Spain at England’s supremacy, these forces combine in a deadly mix against Her Majesty. And Rupert Triumff, swashbuckler, drinker and gentleman of fortune, finds himself in the forefront of a desperate effort to save Queen and country. But he also has a dark secret of his own…
This romp presupposes the discovery of magic by Leonardo di Vinci has halted scientific and cultural advance, so that Her Majesty’s subjects in 2010 would be just at home in Elizabeth I’s London. The holes in this premise large enough to comfortably engulf a coach and four ceased to bother me fairly rapidly. I just relaxed into the madcap enthusiasm of the yarn and enjoyed myself. Abnett clearly knows his 16th century fairly well – and various puns and jokes made me grin, although at times I felt he was trying a trifle too hard… But I’m also aware that humour is highly subjective. Robert Asprin’s books give me a headache and I’ve never managed more than the first page of a Piers Anthony book.
The POV is somewhat odd, with a first person narrator who seemed to be absent throughout most of the story. But this is a relatively picky point. The pace is nicely judged and although the book chops from scene to scene in fairly swift succession, I didn’t find it obtrusive or annoying – which is a plus-point as this ploy often has me hurling books across the room. However, the world-building is a delight. Abnett’s florid description and detail is what makes this book zing off page and grab you by the throat. The characters are largely two-dimensional, but that really doesn’t matter. They suit the world, which is the real star in this book.
Abnett’s other strength is writing action and fight scenes, which is what you’d expect from a highly experienced author who has dozens of comic books and novels already to his credit – a fair number of them written for the Warhammer worlds. It’s not a branch of fiction I venture into, but my husband has reported that while the quality of Warhammer books is variable, Abnett’s books are some of the best he’s read. Abnett has the ability to write clear, exciting action prose, lacing the scene with farce and/or real tension as necessary.
If sword fights set in Shakespeare’s London do it for you, then this is a must-read book. And even if you don’t think you’d enjoy it, I’d still urge you to give it a go. I read it in one sitting, and it managed to put a smile on my face and ease the pain of a newly sprained ankle.