I picked up Ruled Britannia this weekend as it seems to have made its way on to many of the short lists of year’s best SF. It is Harry Turtledove’s latest, and unsurprisingly a novel of “alternative history”.
We find ourselves transported to Shakespeare’s England, 1597, but one in which the Spanish Armada has landed 10 years ago, bringing England forcibly back into the Catholic fold. The English Inquisition is upon the land, and the twin charges of treason and heresy has everyone stepping softly, and planning revolution. I’m about three quarters of the way through the book, but I have few thoughts on it.
Turtledove is working with an idea which has potential. It is a pretty conceit; an idea whose boards have been trod before, but with enough new to make it interesting.
Unfortunately the final results owe more to the gimmickry of Shakespeare in Love (the curtain rises with Will working on Love’s Labours Won), then the powerful imagination evidenced in Turtledove’s Guns of the South, or the lyric poetry of his subject, the Bard, from whom he borrows liberally. And therein lies one of the chief problems. Ruled is populated with characters who speak unceasingly in verse.
To Prance upon the Stage
When your cast of characters numbers many Elizabethan (Isabellan?) players and playwrights a certain amount of blank verse is expected. The scenes of the players twitting each other in broad, raunchy iambic pentameter ring true, and Turtledove’s early passages of Shakespeare and Marlowe fencing, each in his own words, sing. (and remind you who was the gifted story teller and who the master of letters)
But quickly the device grows old, tiresome, and distracting. Where is Shakespeare’s genius (a central dogma of Ruled) if you find his best lines, unprompted, in the mouths of others?
Players never merely act, but must be always strutting and fretting, and many pages groan under the weight of overwrought, leaden dialog, whose sole existence is to frame a clever borrowing or turn of phrase. This heavy handed paean feels more like an exercise carried too far then true craft. Contrast it against Pamela Dean whose appropriations draw yarn from the whole sweep of English literature to add depth and subtlety to her weave.
Perchance to dream?
Turtledove also fails in the “truth is stranger then fiction” department. His subjugated England, and its supposed alternative history hews closer to the conventional history of the time then many scholars propose as having actually existed. Bloom and Michell have proposed a dozen alternatives all more strange. And more intriguing because they might be true. A writer who seeks to tell a story of intrigue, plots, deception, and Shakespeare, but whom relegates Kit Marlowe to the role of pompous jackass, and Bacon to a bit part has thrown away much good material. So much you question the author’s wit, or, deadlier still for a career historical fabulist like Turtledove, his grasp on history.
After all, everyone knows Kit was a secret agent and assassin for the Crown (the original Bond) who staged his own death in that tavern (with Ingram Frizer help) and later published his own works under Shakespeare’s imprint. Or at least one could make a reasoned argument to that effect. Next to such, Ruled’sofferings seem inspid.
Ruled’s women are largely weak, receptacles of desire, and sketchily drawn. Cellis’ cunning woman is intriguing, but suffers from an embarrassment of anachronisms.
Dogberry could well be my least favorite of Shakespeare’s repertoire, and if Michael Keaton once played him marginally well, the pale shade Turtledove has cast in Keaton’s stead to animate Constable Strawberry proves unable to rise to the task, making the Ruled’s later pages, in which the constable plays a significant role, a chore.
Turtledove seems confused on the on the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, or he has rearranged their order arbitrarily without justifying or bothering to notify us of this. An example, the clown Will Kemp’s silence is purchased with the promise of “Falstaff and a King”. Was not King Harry in Falstaff’s inaugural play sufficient? (and if commissioning the revival of that rogue in dreadful comedy of manners Merry Wives is not sufficient reason to dispose Queen Elizabeth, I can think of none better)
A Trifle, But Still Fun
Misunderstand me not, I am enjoying the book. William Cecil ( de Vere’s guardian) commissioning Shakespeare to write a play of Boudica to incite the rabble is clever and original, and much of the language is an old friend, and I’m glad to see it, even if it comes in ruder garb then usual. I have some doubts of the efficacy of Cecil’s scheme (though Coriolanus last summer showed me what a Roman play could be!) but I’ve not finished the book yet,the pages turn quickly, and I wish to know how it ends.
A host of furious fancies
Lastly, Tom O’ Bedlam (a song who has an fey grip upon my fancy) makes an unexpected, and welcome appearance at one point. Turtledove interprets “knight[s] of ghosts and shadows” as being knights of the cross-trade, and the Cecils, fallen nobility moving though the criminal underworld; spinning webs, pulling strings, and occasionally cutting a thread short are just such knights. This interpretation pleases to me to no end.
My thoughts on finishing the book, its weak ending, and surprising prologue copied from Recent Books: Lion’s Blood, More Britannia, Storm of Swords
Ruled Britannia ended predictably I’m afraid. I hoped until the very end for some surprise of substance, but it was not forthcoming.
The 3 page historical end note on the other hand was fascinating. In it Turtledove talks about what would have been required for Spain to have invaded England at that time, and where the verse for the fictional Boudicca came from.
In his estimation (as the premier writer of alternatively historical wars) if the Armada had gotten lucky enough to land the Spanish infantry would have trounced their English counterparts. No word on how they would have fared against the Scotts.
Yet as the premier writer of alternatively historical wars, I was puzzled by Boudicca, the play Turtledove pens for the Bard, as it is awfully good. In fact Turtledove borrowed much of it from the play Bonduca, written by Shakespeare contemporary John Fletcher, and from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. This is both clever and cynical, for the effect would have be utterly ruined if the reader had recognized the words. (as was the case with his more obvious borrowing from Titus to account for the bulk of his fictional King Phillip)
I wonder as the body of human literature grows with the passing years if each literary age will be boiled down to a single known author, the rest forgotten?