One of the most interesting questions is “What if?” It’s one that has spawned millions of stories and ideas, be they DC comics’ Elseworlds or theological arguments. Harry Turtledove (who has gained the title “The Master of Alternate History”) is a very well-known author who has made a career out of exploring this question in a variety of ways as it relates to turning points or possibilities in world history, such as the South winning the civil war, or aliens invade in the middle of WWII.
Ruled Britannia is about one of those places-the invasion of England by Spain and the Armada in order to overthrow Elizabeth I. In our reality the force was destroyed and dispersed by the English, with more than a third of the 151 ships never returned to Spain. The victory was acclaimed by the English as their greatest since Agincourt.
In this world, however, the professional soldiers of the Spanish Empire made it ashore and soon have a tight grip on England, though Scotland and Wales are not mentioned and Irish troops are brought in to help keep the peace, counting on their antipathy for the English. The Catholic faith is forced upon the people upon pain of “the question” by the English Inquisition, and it is worth your life to even mention the imprisoned queen.
One of the citizens paying careful lip service to the superiority of Spanish rule is a playwright named William Shakespeare. He is, like everyone else, just trying to get by, providing folks with laughter and chills by way of his comedies and dramas such as The Prince of Denmark and Love’s Labors Won. However, his skill with words are soon requested for a bigger and much more significant task-to stir his fellow citizens to rise up and throw off the nine-year dominion of the invaders by asking the question “To be free, or not to be free?”
Not much is known about Shakespeare’s personality, so he’s an excellent blank slate for a man with an eye for the everyday detail of his world, and connections with a wide spectrum of people. Indeed, it’s his modest fame as a playwright that makes him a subject of interest for the Inquisition and the Spanish, not to mention his friendship with the brilliant and unabashedly scandalous homosexual playwright Kit Marlowe (who once supposedly said that “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest [unchaste]” and that “the Angel Gabriel was bawd [pimp] to the Holy Ghost”), and who is unsurprisingly not popular with the theocratic Spanish intelligence services, both for his preferences and for his possible connection to anti-Spanish factions.
It should come as no surprise that a book from a veteran writer is clean and flowing, but here the dialogue especially shines. It is sometimes a little hard to follow until you get into the rhythm of iambic pentameter. There are a lot of sneaky quotes from Shakespeare’s work, as well as other plays (and spotting them, even slightly altered, is half the fun). The many puns and the clever wordplay make any scene with Shakespeare and his friends a real pleasure to read.
The story and the conflict are gripping, with the political and religious forces swirling about, personified on the one hand by the ruthless and shadowy ringleaders of the English liberty movement, and on the other by the (real life) Spanish soldier and playwright Lope de Vega, who is interested in the theatre, but also a zealous servant of Queen Isabelle and assigned to uncover any traitors among the actors. He’s so likeable and roguish that it’s easy to forget that he’d sadly condemn Shakespeare to torture if evidence of heresy was uncovered.
The other characters, such as Shakespeare’s fellow players Richard Burbage and the clown Will Kemp (also historical characters, as are most everyone mentioned) are also quite well written. Turtledove does a fine job of likewise painting the world to such a fragrant degree that I winced every time a chamber pot was emptied out a window to splash on the street below.
On the face of it, play-writing isn’t an activity that has a lot of excitement attached to it, but Turtledove manages to fill every page with suspense and intrigue, and the ending feels satisfying, and I even felt that a good snapshot was given of a period and conflict in history that does feel plausible, or at least possible. And of course one of the most important questions when reviewing any book by so prolific an author: What if I read more of his work? That would be a better world, indeed.