Visions of Paradise

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Ruled Britannia

Since I love historical fiction second only to science fiction, it is not surprising that alternate history is one of my favorite sub-genres.  Harry Turtledove is probably the master of that sub-genre, but most of his novels are part of long, involved series which I have neither the time nor the inclination to get involved in.  So when he published the stand-alone novel Ruled Britannia, I bought it eagerly as soon as it appeared in the Science Fiction Book Club.  This wonderful book succeeds equally because of its fascinating plot as well as its detailed views of three aspects of Elizabethan England: life during that era in general, life in a drama troupe, including considerable looks at both the writing and rehearsal process, and life for the Protestant English under the heel of Roman Catholic invaders.

The plot revolves around a group of former advisors to Queen Elizabeth, whose life was spared by King Philip of Spain who ordered her imprisoned in the Tower of London where she has
remained for the ten years since the victory of the Spanish Armada.  With King Philip lying on his deathbed, Elizabeth’s advisors have decided the time has come to foment a revolution against the Spanish, and they decide the revolt should be spearheaded through the presentation of a new Shakespearean play.  The playwright is convinced to write a play detailing the historical revolt of the ancient English against Roman rule, with obvious references to the situation currently taking place in England.

The story details every aspect of the planned revolt as well as activities peripheral to it:

1. Shakespeare’s actual writing the play

2. rehearsals in which the participants strive to keep all information about the play from leaking to the Spanish

3. Shakespeare being hired by the Spanish rulers to write a play in honor of King Philip to be presented upon his death, ironically the same time he is supposed to present the play fomenting
the revolt

4. Kit Marlowe, would-be revolutionary who incurred the wrath of the Spanish because of his homosexuality

5.  Spanish officer Lope de Vega, a budding playwright himself, befriends Shakespeare, and is subsequently assigned to spy on him, thus spending too much time mingling with the drama troupe for their safety’s sake

6.  Cicely Sellis, a suspected witch who shares a boarding house with Shakespeare and proves to be a major character in the revolt

7.  a cast of minor characters who flit in and out of the plot as needed, many real historical people whose lives were “tweaked” by Turtledove to fit his altered scenario.

For example, Turtledove explains in his Historical Note that the real Lope de Vega was the most acclaimed medieval playwright in Spanish history who was an officer on the Spanish Armada, and one of the few survivors who returned to Spain to undertake his writing
career. This fit in so well with his role in the novel–which was the most important role after that of Shakespeare himself–that it gave the novel an authenticity which might not have occurred had the author used entirely fictional characters other than the few obvious ones (Shakespeare, Elizabeth).

The climax of the novel is the revolt itself, which lasts about 100 pages, and is very graphic and
somewhat bloody at times, perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, but that is my only complaint with a well-plotted, thoughtful novel which successfully combines the best of speculative fiction and historical fiction.  I recommend this novel highly indeed.


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