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by Harry Turtledove
Published by New American Library, 2002
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Recommended by: Patrick McGuire
Ruled Britannia centers on William Shakespeare's reluctant work in the English resistance ten years after the victory of the Spanish Armada. (Harry admits that a lot of things would have had to be different to bring a Spanish victory about, but he is content to leave it at a few hints in the afterword.)
Despite lots of puns, and sly historical and literary allusions, the novel is at heart a rather depressing book (as is much of Turtledove's alternate-history fiction), showing Catholics persecuting Protestants, and then Protestants persecuting Catholics as soon as they get the chance.
Turtledove does do some interesting things with calendars and Lenten fasts, subjects that have come up on this list before. He has the Spanish impose the Gregorian calendar on the English. The Protestants of course reject any reforms decreed by a pope. In consequence, in some years Old Style Easter and New Style Easter do not coincide, which means that Lent starts at different times. It seems that in those days Anglicans (who had only started down the road of Protestantization) were still observing strict Lenten fasts, so that one can attempt to discover crypto-Protestants by observing who is fasting outside of New Style Lent.
Anyway, the novel is a bit of a downer, but despite that definitely worth a read.
Science fiction writers have a sort of fascination with William Shakespeare. (It only stands to reason. Even if they work in a genre which the literary establishment refuses to recognise, they are, after all, writers, and Shakespeare is the paragon of literary excellence in English.) Turtledove, the acknowledged master of alternate history, is no exception to the rule, but, true to form, in Ruled Britannia, he portrays Shakespeare, not as he was, but as he might have been. In this world, the Spanish Armada was successful in invading England, Queen Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Catholicism was imposed upon the populace by force. Shakespeare, who is more concerned with his dramas than with political reality, just wants to be left alone, but is drawn into a plot to throw off the Spanish yoke.
The dialogue is set in sixteenth-century English, which is a little jarring, but I found myself able to pick it up surprisingly quickly. (For that, I should probably credit growing up on the King James Version of the Bible, and my English 11 teacher, who made us memorise lines from two of Shakespeare's plays. "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more...") There is a good deal of business about how to tell the religious loyalty of various characters, but it's on what is, for Turtledove, a surprisingly shallow level. There is no real coming to grips with the principles of the Reformation or the Counter-Reformation, either on the Continent or in England. Rather, religion is simply a matter of determining a character's loyalty to the cause. There is a fair amount of discussion of sex, including homosexuality, but that is, in fact, true to Shakespeare's works, which are more ribald than most moderns realise. (There are also a lot of puns in the dialogue, and that, too, is true to Shakespeare. In fact, there are a couple of hilarious scenes in which characters have "quibbles" with one another.)
Turtledove posits two new plays by Shakespeare, and includes extended speeches from them. However, he does not presume to insert his own verse as Shakespeare's. Rather, he borrows and adapts lines from several plays by Shakespeare (and a couple of others by his contemporaries) and stitches them together to give the appearance of novel works. He also can't resist the temptation to scatter lines from Shakespeare's works throughout the dialogue, giving the impression that Shakespeare simply "lifted" the best lines he heard in everyday conversation and inserted them into his plays. Greg Slade (March, 2004)
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