© 2002 Harry Turtledove
1597. The 16th century is drawing to a close, and with it — seemingly — England’s fortunes. Nine years ago the vast Spanish armada triumphed in delivering its army to English shores, where grim veterans easily cast aside the hastily-drawn levies that met them on the beaches. Spain’s daughter reigns as queen, while England’s own languishes in Bell Tower. The Catholic church has been restored to power over Protestantism, and with such severity that the mention of the English Inquisition can cause a man’s blood to chill. One of the most popular of English playwrights, enjoyed by even the overseeing Spanish, is one William Shakespeare, who has been asked to write a play celebrating the life of Spain’s aging monarch, Phillip. But what if instead of memorializing the crown occupant, he celebrates the tragedy of Queen Boudica, a Celtic chieftess of yore who lead her proud Britons in battle against a Roman invader? So begins what must for me be Harry Turtledove’s most fascinating piece to date, a tribute to a master wordsmith via alternate history.
Ruled Britannia stands apart from Turtledove’s other work, being largely dominated by the one figure of William Shakespeare instead of drawing from an ensemble cast. There is another viewpoint character, the likewise famous Lope de Vega, but Shakespeare is the star. Even when he is not telling the story, he is present: lines from his work absolutely riddle the dialogue. The language, too, is unusual: Turtledove switches between present-day English for narration, and Elizabethan English for his characters’ conversations. This requires adjustment on the part of the reader, but like tugging on a boot, it seems natural enough after a little effort. For once, Turtledove’s annoying habit of being repetitive works to the readers’ advantage, helping the arcane vocabulary and spellings (“murther most foul!”) gain familiarity. Most of the characters are historic personalities, another unusual move for Turtledove, and one of the few exceptions exists in a netherworld of fiction and fact, being one of the real Shakespeare’s characters re-purposed for this set. Shakespeare doesn’t get up to much within the book, instead, while he writes and prepares two plays at once, consorting with Spanish nobles and rebellious Englishers in such a fashion as to court death from other side, readers experience life in occupied England. Tension comes in the form of a string of deaths of men connected with Shakespeare and the scheme to release Boudica’s rebellion onto the unsuspecting dons. The poet is watched both by suspicious Spainards and calculating revolutionaries, neither of whom are afraid of a little villainy in the name of a worthy cause. Faced with death from either side, Shakespeare ultimately performs for himself, for his own conscience; for he is an Englishman, called to show the mettle of his pasture. His decision whether or not to be the rebellion’s propagandist is never in doubt, and the parts of the play shared with readers are certainly blood-rousing enough. The novel’s last fifth is on rebellion itself, with lots of sword-fighting and enthusiastic yelling.
For the fan of Shakespeare and historical fiction, this is gold — and a most unusual treat for readers of alt-historical fiction. While I could have done without some of the luridness and at least twenty uses of the same phrase (“made a leg”), this is one to remember with fondness.