Book Review: Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove

March 29, 2008

The defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the major turning points in the history of Europe, indeed the world. But what would have happened if the Armada would have reached the shores of Britain?

In "Ruled Britannia" by Harry Turtledove, King Phillip II has placed his daughter, Isabella, and her consort on the British throne, and they have been ruling the isles for 10 years with the conquistadors, the dreaded Inquisition and the help of the Irish. But now, Phillip is on the verge of death, and the old (surviving) advisers of the imprisoned Queen Elizabeth feel that the time is coming to get their freedom back.

Central to their plan is William Shakespeare, whose famous plays have made him the darling of the crowds. He is charged by Lord Burghley to write a play which will rouse the common Briton to take up arms against their conquerors. At the same time, the Spanish want a fitting tribute to their Great King, and there is none better than William Shakespeare who can write a play about the greatness of His Most Catholic Majesty.

So now, the fate of two queens and two kingdoms rests on the words penned by a man who can't decide which play he wants to perform. And the success of the plot, if it materializes, depends on the actors and men who are vain or simple, timid or courageous, oblivious to the danger, or relishing it; in short, the men as common as the audience who applaud and cheer them.

Although he is the central character in the novel, William Shakespeare is still a common man. Like most people he does not want to risk his life by going against the conquerors, and conforms to their customs and rites just to be safe from the Inquisition. And although he would not spy on his neighbors, the only difference between him and the man on street is his prodigious talent. So it is quite ironic that the same talent thrusts him in the center of conspiracy, spy games and possibly "treason."

If you are looking for a hero in traditional medieval mold, senior lieutenant Lope de Vega would be the one. A conquistador who came up on the Armada, he is a brave man, fond of plays and women. As an English speaker and a fan of Shakespeare, he has full "backstage" access. Not to mention, he is a playwright himself, writing in Spanish. He is looking forward to play a part in "King Phillip", and plays a reluctant spy looking for any conspiracy amongst the actors.

Imaginary characters like Cicely Sellis (a "cunning woman") stand shoulder to shoulder with characters like Kit Marlow, Lord Burghley, Robert Cecil, acting as the "supporting" cast. Indeed, many times they show more courage than the reluctant hero. The nobles, like Lord Burghley work in the shadows at the back, while Good Queen Bess does not appear until almost the end.

It is only in the last few days that I have heard the name of Harry Turtledove, and the place he holds amongst historical fiction writers. Given my current condition, I am a bit loathe to start any of his series, but I must say that "Ruled Britannia" lived up to all that hype, and then some more.

Fleiger is a book-lover by hobby. Favorite genre include fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, mystery, and almost everything you can read. His books reviews and other thoughts can be found at Lazy Habits.
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March 29, 2008
07:49 AM

His WW2 books are very good and interesting, I loved them :), I didnt realise he had come out with a new book, and its gone into my tbr list :)

thanks for a great review!

March 29, 2008
12:11 PM

@bd: I have heard about his WW-II books, and one other series, I forgot which.

Ruled... is not that new, it was published in 2002 (as I said, I just heard the name) :)

Good to hear you liked the review...

Temple Stark
March 29, 2008
04:48 PM

Yes, the review was illustrative of what's going on and this sounds like a pretty fascinating story. I know a few other people who would love it, too.


Ruvy in Jerusalem
March 30, 2008
01:11 AM

Borrowed one of Harry Turtledove's books about "what if" - in this case, some Afrikaners going back 150 years in time to supply Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virgina with AK 47's.

The delicious irony of the story is that Lee succeeds in separating the southern states from the Union but insists - to the extreme anger of the Afrikaners - on freeing the black slaves of the Confederacy.

While I enjoyed the review, I sense I would not enjoy this book. It may be true that individuals influence history to a tremendous degree, but my suspicion is that they get less "stage time" than Turtledove implies in his books....

March 30, 2008
06:28 AM

well, that's an interesting point, Ruvy. You might know that there is a whole body of historiography and even fiction around the "counter-factual" basis.

I guess it goes back to the amount of control one person might influence on the future. Come the moment, come the man? If Gandhi would not have been there, would the trajectory of the world have been different? If Ben Gurion's father had been a carpenter in Manchester instead of a lawyer in Poland, would the trajectory of Israel be different?

The fact that it would be different is not in doubt, what matters is (in terms of physics), the direction and magnitude of the change.

I havent read this book, but his previous books, I think he builds his counter-factuals based upon individuals taking different decisions. But then, to make the argument have more verisimilitude, he then lets them get swept away in the tide of history......

Ruvy in Jerusalem
March 30, 2008
06:47 AM


There is a point that Leo Frankowski raises in his own series of "what if" books, Crosstime Engineer. This is a theory of "compensation". This concept states that events would have probably occurred anyway, though via a different route, and that it is far harder to create an alternate universe than it it looks to be.

So, in Gandhi's case, if he had decided to remain a lawyer in South Africa, or had been run over by a tram there instead of returning to his native India, someone else would have arisen to attempt to unhook India from British rule.

Similarly, if Ben Gurion had not arisen as a leader because his father was a carpenter in Manchester, there was always Ze'ev Jabotinsky who would have had a far more influential role in the Zionist Organization in the early years, and who might not have died in exile the way he did.

It may be far trickier attempting to mess with causality than our science fiction writers have made it out to be.

I know I have attempted books of this nature myself, and find that writing a viable alternative history is a very tricky business indeed.

March 30, 2008
07:22 AM

nods, Ruvy, I can agree to that hypothesis as well and can see the logic behind that. But then, one can argue that what emerged as Israel would have been a different Israel if the only influence would have been Jabotinsky with nothing from Ben Gurion....

But that just proves your next point about causality, there are far too many unknowns in this place and time to really judge....

But that is where the enduring attraction of this genre comes in. Every person on this world has, at least once, thought back on his/her own life and wondered what might have happened if some decision/task/action/judgement/... had been taken/not been taken or a different one done..

But, to further complicate this line of thought, wouldnt you say that what you said about the theory of compensation is nothing but Divine judgement which we can try to influence but at end of the day, cannot?

Ruvy in Jerusalem
March 30, 2008
08:27 AM

But, to further complicate this line of thought, wouldn't you say that what you said about the theory of compensation is nothing but Divine judgement which we can try to influence but at end of the day, cannot?

Perhaps - but the author of the concept, Leo Frankowski, is a fallen away Catholic who says he's an atheist....

Maybe Frankowski is not quite the atheist he thinks he is?

March 30, 2008
11:09 AM

@Temple Stark: Thanks... I liked this book, and Harry Turtledove's style quite a bit. Do read my other reviews, comments welcome...

@Ruvy and bd: Wow, while I was sleeping, you have started quite a good discussion here. Let me see if I can add my two knuts to it now:

Regards the "compensation theory", I recently read (in a time travel story) a similar theory. It states that the effect of a individual decision/event on a linear time(history) goes on decreasing with advent of time. And after a substantial amount of time (I think the figure was around 4000 years or so), the difference between two timelines is negligible. That makes sense, right?

So, if Gandhiji hadn't come back from Africa, I would say we would still be independent in 2008, but probably the independence would have come as a result of the actions of moderates (who were asking for autonomy), or maybe people like Bhagat Singh. So our situation right now would be different, but in say, 2247 or 2347, we would still be quite similar to where we are heading now. Does that make any sense to you?

Ruvy, As for the effect of an individual on history, let me talk from the book (may contain spoilers). Even though it is Shakespeare who is thrust in the centre here, he is aided, terrorised, and coerced by many other individuals to stay on the track they want. If you look below the storyline (and imagine a bit), there seem to be many people who are pushing "towards zero" (as Agatha Christie would say).

bd, I agree about the attraction of the genre. This is the genre which talks about "what if"s, while fantasy, sci-fi and others talk about "maybe"s. Much more personal, right?

P.S. Divine Balance? Definitely worth a thought, if only as a pat of a story :D

Ruvy in Jerusalem
March 30, 2008
01:00 PM

Fleiger, bd,

This genre, alternative histories, is my favorite genre of fiction. They give the most gristle for thought, IMHO, as well as a wealth of information on the side.

So, I've read quite a few. I've reviewed two such books at Blogcritics Magazine, our parent site, Warday , and the Crosstime Engineer Series by Frankowski mentioned above.

I haven't found any such book that has dealt with Israel and Jewish history, and when I grow up, I'll try once more to write such a book - if it still seems warranted.

March 30, 2008
04:29 PM

Fleiger, that is correct. I used to programme decision trees once in a dim and distant past

and as you go down the tree, the original decision's impact on the current situation gets reduced by geometric ways rather than linear ways.

A bit less in the past, I used to work with monte carlo simulation for risk management (dont shoot me guys, the current mess had had nothing to do with me, not that i will admit it in public :P). Now that's where one also deals with alternative realities.

But, the reason I am not that happy with all that is that life isnt linear. And another aspect which I researched was what was called as genetic algorithims.

you see, its the mutation factor which is crucial in life, that's what makes life quite interesting. Or in other words, CERTAIN events/people/places/... play a disproportionate role in our lives. For example, (and again, sorry, Ruvy, to use you as an example..), why is Jerusalem more more important in Human History impact terms compared to say Santiago? Why was a chappie from Mongolia the person with the greatest genetic impact? (Genghis Khan..).

And we recognise that, those disproportionate events. And that's where, I suppose the interest arises. Would the middle east crisis be the same if Jesus and Mohammad worked in Chile?

April 3, 2008
01:49 PM

@Ruvy: I know how you feel. I have found only one short story in this genre in Marathi, and even Indian literature till date (Anyone is welcome to disabuse me of this).

Thanks for the links, will check them out soon. Keep them coming :D

@bd: In short, a butterfly flapping its wings in 1900 may cause a documentary on hurricanes in 2000?

Would the middle east crisis be the same if Jesus and Mohammad worked in Chile?
Now that's a thought that is going to fester :D

(Thanks for all the links. Though I am lazy enough to like books which do not require additional reading, random info, on which I will not be tested, is always welcome)

Ruvy in Jerusalem
April 3, 2008
02:43 PM


I just remembered this review that I wrote at Blogcritics Magazine about apocalyptic changes in climate that might interest you. It's really a review of a book and a movie that deal with the same basic subject - a quarter century apart. Naturally, the book comes out better than the movie.... When you write a book, you have time to detail issues for the reader.

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