Alternative historical fantasy made in the shadow of Albion
I’ll say right away that this one, of all the Norton collaborations I’ve read so far, is my favorite. I love the novels about the Napoleonic wars, both real world stories and alternate world fantasies. I like spy novels. I like the adventures of fish out of water: characters pushed out of their world or their time. Add a hefty dose of Faerie and a dollop of Portal Fantasy, and I’m there.
The funny thing about this is that it’s absolutely a Norton novel, with a whole range of her favorite do’s and don’ts, and yet Rosemary Edghill’s hand is visible in the prose. softer, skillful characterization, and the range and variety of stories and sartorial detail. It’s Norton, but more. As a collaboration, it’s pretty much transparent, and for me at least it works.
The plot is one of Norton’s classics. It is 1805. An orphan and maladjusted young woman from the United States escapes a wicked parent and is drawn by fairy magic into an alternate world in which the American Revolution never took place. The triggering event of the timeline is the Duke of Monmouth’s accession to the British crown as Charles III, rather than James II of our world. England has remained Protestant, although there is a persistent Catholic underground. There is no Hanover dynasty, no Mad King George, and no regency. Henry IX is King of England. The magic happens and the elderly play an active, albeit undercover, role in human events.
In Europe, events have unfolded much as they have in our world. The French had their Revolution, Napoleon came to power thanks to it, and people like the Marquis de Sade and Talleyrand are doing their part to advance the Emperor’s cause. And a certain very secret, very clandestine order of spies serves directly under the king.
One of them is the very sexy Duke of Wessex. Our protagonist, Sarah Cunningham, finds herself in the place of a vitally important actor on the world stage, the Marquise de Roxbury. She was brought here by magic and kept under control initially by brainwashing and attempting to mind control, but it ultimately fails. But not before she’s forced to marry the cold and secretive Duke.
It is true that it is, but cold, no. Not really. The romance is very nortonistic, barely there, and almost everything develops offstage. There’s quite a bit of denial on both sides, which the alert reader knows leads to the inevitable conclusion, especially once Sarah has regained her full memory and manages to share it with the Duke.
Sarah is quite a remarkable person. She grew up among Native Americans and is a trained warrior. She hunts and shoots with remarkable skill. As a high society woman, she is not so subtly miserable, but once she escapes the bonds of her rank and station and is kidnapped in France, she is able to use her formidable skills to save herself and her friend Meriel, the handsome descendant of a rebellious English Catholic family. She also played a key role in the search and rescue of a character of capital importance to France and England, Louis the Dauphin, lost and presumed dead but in reality hidden in plain sight in the very heart of France. .
The plot is complex, the pace is true and classic Norton fashion. There’s a kidnapped Danish princess, a wildly charming Polish hussar in the middle of a fig, including the Howling Eagle’s Wings, a plot to trap the Prince of Wales with a honey trap but the honey won’t – that goes on and on. It’s a wild and wonderful ride, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
I especially liked all the little echoes and reminiscences and tributes. The Polish officer is also a spy, a master of disguise – and his name is Ilya Koscuisko (sic). Which makes the Duke, ironically, Napoleon Solo, although he is blond: he is otherwise tall and lean and Saturnian, and still elegant. Which in turn refers to the antecedents of The UNCLE man, including The scarlet chickweed and by the way, A tale of two cities. The seemingly idle and useless nobleman who is in fact a master spy is a beloved trope, which Norton herself starred with in a number of novels prior to this collaboration.
And that adds to the fun. I particularly remembered The fan with opal eyes, because of the orphan forced to fight her way through a series of impossible setbacks. There is a clear resemblance to his Lyon Family novels, yankee corsair and more, Stand up and deliver. I even saw echoes of Huon of the Horn in his fairy king: the character of incalculable power no taller than a child, who controls the passages between worlds. (And I also note that one of the Duke’s pseudonyms is Captain Reynard.)
Nortonisms are present and taken into account. Backstage romances that present themselves as done deals. The hasty and rather abrupt end. The inevitable underground adventure.
Strictly objectively, they write mistakes, but in this context, they are part of the fun of it all. I would have been disappointed not to at least see the chase through the dungeon. It is emblematic.
And the rest too. It is an homage in itself, an homage to the tropes and narrative styles of a beloved master of several genres. It’s clear that Edghill loves and understands her collaborator’s style, and she does a fine and subtle job with it. The result is a great adventure, and pure pleasure to read.
I will read the rest as soon as possible, for my pleasure. In the meantime, for this series, I move on to another collaboration, The Elvenbane.
Judith Tarr has written historical stories and fantasies, epic fantasies and space operas, many of which have been published as e-books. She won the Crawford Award and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzaner horses.