Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW
"On, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing!
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be king
Over the sea to Skye!"
|-- The Skye Boat Song (traditional Stuart song)|
Looking at my "Gwen" folder, where I keep these things (you are, for obvious reasons, the first name on my list, Gwen), I noticed with some dismay that I've been falling down on the job -- yesterday's quick review of The Road to El Dorado was the first one I've sent since November. No, I haven't stopped seeing movies or reading books -- it's just that this seems to be a very episodic task for me ...
This novel, which I've had sitting beside my computer for a month now, is the first in what seems to be intended to be a series of "Alternate Regency" novels; the second, Leopard in Exile, seems to be getting near to (hardback) publication. The first book originally attracted me because of the name; there's the beginning of a manuscript for a novel called Albion sitting on the hard drive my old Mac Quadra 650, as well as lots and lots of background material. Reading the book, I found some significant parallels, and also some very significant differences. To wit
(1) My "Albion" is a late-twentieth-century kingdom sitting on the western fringe of an underdeveloped, largely colonial North America. Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill's "Albion" is the traditional geographical location of the name Great Britain. Though in the single chapter of the second book now available on-line, it appears that the term "New Albion" is also applied to Britain's eastern North American colonies... (1)
(2) While both "Albions" exist in universes where history went off on a different track, mine derives from an event in late June, 1579, when two sailors from Francis Drake's beached privateer the Golden Hinde climbed over the southwest ridge of Mt. Tamalpais and caught sight of San Francisco Bay (see http://www.webcom.com/~donh/don/stories/tobias.html ). Norton and Edghill's world split off a hundred years later, when Charles II, on his deathbed, confirmed the Duke of Monmouth as the legitimate heir of his body, thus avoiding Monmouth's bloody Rebellion, the excesses of James II (any Errol Flynn or Rafael Sabatini fan will remember these from Captain Blood), the Glorious Revolution, and a hundred years of rule by foreign (mainly German) monarchs starting with the well-meaning Willem of Orange.
(3) In both universes, Britain is ruled by the Stuart dynasty, so popular with romantics who feel that both dethronements of the Stuarts led to catastrophic results (the Protectorate, the Hanoverian kings). My Stuart (Richard VI at the end of the twentieth century) is regnant over a Catholic Britain from a throne in Edinburgh, and speaks, besides international Latin, what in the real world is known as the Scottish dialect of English, or something similar thereto. Norton and Edghill's King Henry IX (3) and his scapegrace son James, Prince of Wales, are thoroughly Anglicized and Protestantized, and rule from the usual throne in London.
(4) The world of my "Albion" is largely unrecognizable by the end of the seventeenth century, and by that time none of the familiar names from our histories appear; furthermore, with the disappearance of the English Civil War and Cromwell's dictatorship from history, England has turned its (largely Catholic) interests toward the continent and Europe is already lapsing into what Toynbee would describe as the "universal state" of Western civilization. In 1805, however, with a few "minor" changes, the events and structure of the Norton-Edghill world are much like our own. Napoleon Bonaparte has subverted the French Revolution and now sits astride much of the continent in an attempt to create his own European universal state -- an attempt which, it appears, will be aborted by Albion (England), just as it was in our world.
The plot of The Shadow of Albion revolves around a magickal exchange of individuals between two worlds. Sarah Conyngham, Marchioness of Roxbury, is dying and leaving a great work undone; she is charged with changing places with another Sarah Cunningham, from a world much like our own, who will be able to finish the work -- granted that she is willing. Our Sarah finds herself, partially bereft of memory, dumped into the identity of the Marchioness, betrothed to the young Duke of Wessex (who, though he doesn't reveal this to her, is a cross between James Bond and The Scarlet Pimpernel), surrounded by magical phenomena that she doesn't completely understand, caught on the sidelines of a plot to turn England, in the person of young Prince James, back to Catholicism, and eventually carted off to France, where she becomes involved in different but simultaneous attempts to rescue James's betrothed, Princess Stephanie of Denmark, and the long-hidden Dauphin of France.
Another reason for reading this work is that I have thoroughly enjoyed some of Edghill's other novels, most particularly her three Bast mysteries that were collected by Tor more than a year ago into Bell, Book and Murder -- see my review, which Edghill, under another identity (eluki bes shahar), has posted at her web site (http://www.sff.net/PEOPLE/ELUKI/harlow.htm). Not to mention the fact that I've been reading "Andre Norton" since I was in grade school (Daybreak: 2250 A.D.). Unfortunately, it struck me that there were quite a number of flaws in this book, all of which would have been easily correctable. To wit
(1) The idea that world history would have marched on with very little change after Monmouth's accession strikes me as highly unlikely. Well, put it down to a difference in philosophies. I believe, as it is said, that a butterfly flapping its wings over Beijing today may cause a severe thunderstorm over New York next week. The Norton-Edghill book is based on the philosophical belief that history is a very difficult thing to derail from predetermined tracks. It's not clear which of these philosophies is correct, and it's even less clear that this matters all that much in a literary work...
(2) Too little is done with much of the background material. I will accept that Sarah's Boscobel ring has a role to play in the future; but Sarah's own background, as distinct from that of the original Marchioness, is not sufficiently developed or emphasized. Furthermore, the plot to marry Meriel off to James and have her "turn" him to Catholicism -- or was it to kidnap somebody to France? I'm not sure what the original, or at least actual, plan was -- was not given enough play, and for the amount of space it was given, it was aborted far too early.
(3) The addition of Meriel as a female viewpoint character detracted considerably from Sarah's development as a character. IMHO, Sarah should have been the only female viewpoint character.
(4) Despite the great amount of space given to Wessex as the male viewpoint character, his development as an actual individual seems to be scanted. He seems to be just another High-Ranking Secret Agent With the Ear of the King and an Urge to Sacrifice. Give the man some manhood, for God(dess) sake! At the very least, give him a Funny Hat to add to his uniform.
(5) Actually, the two most interesting characters in the book are the Pole Ilya Koscuiscko (shouldn't that be "Kosciusko"?) and the Danish princess Stephanie Julianna, the latter of whom shows up only at the end but displays so much initiative, intelligence and spirit that she should put both Sarah and Meriel to shame. Jeg haaber at vi skal se Dem mere, Stephanie! And the same for Koscuisko.
(6) Granted that this is, in some respects, a fantasy, and that it is not out of place to include fantastic (i.e. magical) elements in it; nevertheless, my own feeling is that, except in out-and-out fantasy taking place in worlds completely different from our own, the magical elements should remain in the background, only showing up from time to time and playing more of a facilitating than an active role. Norton and Edghill succeed in this most of the time, which makes Meriel's ride on the phouka -- as opposed, perhaps, to her meeting with it -- completely out of place.
(7) If you're going to introduce the Marquis de Sade as a dark magician, make more use of the poor man! He pops in, glowers a bit, and then pops out again. Yes, he was responsible for the misplacement of the princess -- completely off-stage.
There are some enjoyable in-joke references which some will catch. For instance, at one point we encounter characters named Buckland and Farrar (Toby, though, not Stewart). Edghill promises some more in-group jokes (revolving around characters from other Regency novels, so I probably won't catch them) in the sequel.
It's a pleasant enough book for a day's reading. But I hope that the series will improve in the later books.
Other Reviews/Aliaj Recenzoj