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Imagine a world where Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Falstaff, Othello, Romeo and Juliet actually lived. Where cannon existed in Hamlet's time and striking clocks in Julius Caesar's. Where Richard III was a hunchbacked monster, Bohemia once had a seacoast, and witchcraft works. Where fairies and elves exist. Where "English folk...in character and speech...[existed] before the walls of Troy, in Theseus' Athens, in Rome and later Italy, in Denmark...[having] spread out north from some old southern land..." And where the chronicle of that spread is told by a man called The Historian--William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon. Such is the world imagined by Poul Anderson in this splendid, magical, swashbuckling tale. The scene is England, and the Cromwellian revolt against King Charles I (or, as the Puritans claim, his bad councillors) is raging. Among the best cavalry commanders in the Royalist force is Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the King's nephew--until he's captured at the Battle of Marston Moor and taken to the home of a Puritan knight, Sir Malachi Shelgrave. There he meets his captor's niece, Jennifer Alayne, and there he is delivered from captivity by her and his loyal Somersetshire sergeant, Will Fairweather. For in a world where locomotives and smoking factories already blight the face of England, King Oberon and Queen Titania of the Faerie realm have a job for him to do, a task that will not only determine which cause triumphs but may mean the continued existence of all that is supernatural.
Anderson is best known as a writer of sf, often set on distant planets inhabited by splendidly imaged alien races (read his Fire Time for a prime example); his fantasies are few (this one, HROLF KRAKI'S SAGA - Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, and The Broken Sword (Fantasy Masterworks) are the chief ones), but coming as he did from the bardic tradition of Scandinavia, his gift was natural and is plainly marked here. The basic premise is intriguing and well worked out, the characters are distinctive and delightful (from gangly Will Fairweather to the "airy sprite" Ariel to the "maundering" Puritans and the loyal, loving Jennifer), and if you try reading some of the dialogue out loud to yourself, you'll realize that a good deal of it is written in blank verse! (And after all, if you think about it, if Shakespeare was reporting both events and speech exactly as they occurred, how else *would* people speak in his world?) There's even a brief appearance by that famous Gascon, D'Artagnan, of Dumas's The Three Musketeers (Signet Classics), very possibly with Queen Anne's diamond studs in his pocket. I've loved Anderson's work since I first discovered it in the early '70's, and this is among my favorites of his novels. If you're looking for a very different kind of alternate-world fantasy filled with intrigue, action, singing language, and unforgettable characters, this is a book you mustn't neglect to read.