Roc/Penguin (USA) / 470 pages / November 2002
So many things factor into a truly involving alternate history. One of the most important elements must be the I-Didn’t-Know-That Factor; those moments when a reader finds themself repeating that same phrase, only to remember that this book is alternate history — not the real thing. Admittedly, my Florida public school education leaves me with a shakier grasp on such basic subjects, but I found myself taken in, time and again.
Remember: the Spanish Armada did not overthrow England at the time of William Shakespeare. As far as we know… If it seems impossible to imagine a Britain governed by Spain and victims of the Inquisition, just give it a few pages and Ruled Britannia will likely have you wondering, too.
In London under the heavy hand of Spain and the Vatican, life for an actor and playwright is one lived under sufferage. All plays must be approved by the Master of the Revels and some topics are simply avoided by a smart man who wants to keep his liberty and his head. Only those with a death-wish would do other than praise their conquerors and give every appearance of being devoutly Catholic. Everyday life is one of frustration and fear for the deposed Queen Elizabeth I’s secretly loyal subjects.
Shakespeare, with wife Anne back in Stratford and very much a burden, could hardly face more complications in his life. That is, until he is commissioned by the British resistance to pen a play designed to ignite rebellion against the rule of Isabelle and Albert. Of course, the mere discussion of such a piece is treason and tempts a visit from the Dons, but that pressure is only increased one hundred-fold when Spain’s commanding officer in England recruits a very different play to mark the imminent passing of Phillip II. It will be a race to get both scripts completed and a struggle to keep his secrets hidden until one or the other is performed.
Now, make no mistake: if you are one of those people who think Juliet’s “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” was a question as to his whereabouts, the prose in Ruled Britannia might be some tough going, faithful as it is to the time period. Even if it’s a bit of a challenge at first, the reward is well worth hanging in there until you pick up the rhythm and idiom. Alternate history is Harry Turtledove’s field and no one explores the possibilities in such depth as he does. To say that the author has done his research is a staggering understatement; the era comes vividly to life in this taut, all-too-possible thriller.
Maybe it could never have happened. Maybe it was a near thing. Either way, Ruled Britannia delivers that chilling what if? that is the hallmark of the best alternate history. And, it just might leave you with lingering ghosts of facts that were faux all the time.