Alternate-history and science fiction are technically in the same category, though rarely do they go hand in hand. In this story though, we get some plausible alternate-history and science fiction! I present to you, one of S.M. Stirling's epics, The Peshawar Lancers!
The story is set in the early 21st century in 2025, some 148 years after a disastrous event known as "the Fall" where in 1878 a string of comets slammed into Earth, causing great destruction and a single great chunk of space rock hit the Atlantic Ocean, sending up enough dust and water vapor that it caused the sky to be clouded over, as well as sending out a great tsunami which sent waves far enough inland that they wrecked the Appalachians, Ireland, Iberia, and other places. In the aftermath there was a great reduction in global temperatures, especially in northern Europe and America, causing almost a little ice age. With famine imminent, many of the powers of Europe that could flee, chose to do so.
The government of Queen Victoria fled to India, and established the Angrezi Raj (or the British Empire in the British Raj) the French fled to Algeria, the Dutch to the East Indies, and the Russians fell back upon the vastness of their Asian empire, abandoning Europe to desolation and starvation. The northern hemisphere died, but the south survived.
Welcome to the world of the Peshawar Lancers.
The story follows the exploits of Athelstane King and his loyal friend and somewhat batman the trooper Narayan Singh as they square off against the machinations of a Russian Okhrana agent, Vladimir Ignatieff, intent on causing great mischief for the Raj and appeasing the dark god Chernobog who the Russians now worship. In this intrigue will be swept up Athelstane's sister Cassandra, the mysterious woman Yasmini, and many other odd hangers on who become embroiled in the drama.
This tale is told very purposefully in the style of older writers like Rudyard Kipling or even Robert E. Howard, evoking a mysterious world of adventure and intrigue at the edges of the settled world. In that sense it hearkens back to the era of empire and colonialism, or at least, a romanticized version of it.
Peshawar Lancers cuts right to the chase here, with action, intrigue, assassination, and cool schizo tech with a patchwork of old and new technology in world that has been vaguely frozen in time since "the Fall" set the clock back. You have coal burning trains and warships, rifles that wouldn't look out of place in 1900, and steam power being the biggest thing around. This creates some fun action scenes involving airships, trains, and horse riding across the desert to outwit the villains.
As a swashbuckling tale of adventure the characters are outlined well, and we see their motivations and ambitions behind their actions, but beyond the villains they're all good people to one extent or another. They're fun to follow around, if not for their dialogue for the action that accompanies them. Poor Athelstane is constantly running to keep ahead of one assassin or another. Amusingly at one point Athelstane reflects that he has seen so many types of assassins he has to wonder simply who will be next, and he wouldn't even bat an eye at how strange they were! In that vein he also has an oath of vengeance to carry out for when one assassin misses their target and hits a bystander. The action set pieces are just damn fun to read, and each is clever, ambitious, and they merely escalate as the plot goes on with the penultimate fight taking place in the skies and the hills!
Here we see Stirling at his best with some wonderful world building, great action scenes, and well fleshed out fun characters on an adventure. The history behind the world is explored (and thanks to a series of appendix at the back well fleshed out) with society being seen through the eyes of our characters, and as ever in alternate history this is, for me at least, fun! The world is three dimensional, with its problems, plagues, and idiosyncrasies. The Raj might be the most powerful nation on Earth, but its enemies are cunning, and we see that they have many enemies.
There are some light sci-fi elements included, from the asteroid impact, telepathic powers, and the general tech level of the world, the story is a toss up between steam punk and adventure, making it hard to nail down as a genre tale. That is just fine by me personally.
Basically, the story is an action adventure plot from humble start to dashing finish. We have some light political and spy drama, but it builds up to the action pieces. Whether that is fighting assassins on a moving train, or storming an town house with a gang of criminals, the action is fantastic! Sword fights, knife fights, gun fights, you name it they fight with it!
Personally I can't stress just how fun this novel is. The setting is unique, the characters are fun, and the world is such a grand invention you can't help but get lost in it! If you're looking for a good time, jump in and follow the adventures of the Peshawar Lancers.