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Literature / The Peshawar Lancers

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The Peshawar Lancers is a 2002 Alternate History novel by S.M. Stirling (author of the The Draka, Island in the Sea of Time and the Emberverse) which takes place in a world where a series of comet strikes destroyed much of Western Europe and North America in 1878, the resulting long winter finishing off most of civilization in those areas. Most of the survivors that didn't become cannibal savages fled to their overseas colonies, in particular the French remnants relocated to their North African possessions and the British to India, South Africa and Australia. By the early 21st Century, the latter (at least in India) have gone native to the point of referring themselves as the Angrezi Raj.


The novel contains examples of:

  • Adventure-Friendly World: Stirling stated in the afterword "Why Then, There" to the in-universe side story "Shirkari in Galveston" that the asteroid impacts were the only way to retain the wonder of Rudyard Kipling style stories without the dread and letdown of Historical Fiction.
  • After the End: One in the style of Rudyard Kipling. The latter parts of the story concern the threat of a second impact (not that one).
  • Alternate History: When "God Save the King" is replaced with "Gods Save the Padishah" (no, not that one), take a wild guess.
  • Alternate Universe: The Sisters are mentioned to not only see the future, but different futures as well. Including a snapshot of our 21st Century.
  • Artistic License – Chemistry:
    • One character despises guncotton because of its tendency to sweat nitroglycerin. That's dynamite, which is nitroglycerin absorbed into kiselguhr. Guncotton is pure nitrocellulose, which does not contain nitroglycerin.
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    • The hydrogen in the Empire's airships is spiked with "sulfur-rich methane" to make leaks detectable. Methane contains no sulfur and is completely odorless (natural gas, a mixture of mostly methane and ethane, needs to have odorants added for this very reason).
  • Bandit Clan: The Pashtun clan that Ibrahim comes from appears to make their living in this way. The clan of air pirates which attacks the zeppelin towards the end of the book are also examples.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Richard Allenby claims to be a dignified Political Service agent living in a mansion with a harem of beautiful Indian girls, until we find out he took part in Satanic cannibal rituals and had killed a girl some time before while raping her. One can only wonders where the girls sacrificed by Ignatieff in his cellar came from and how many of them were...
  • Big Bad: Count Ignatieff.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Athelstane is an unrepentant womanizer, but also an Officer and a Gentleman.
  • Colony Drop: The Fall was a massive meteor storm that devastated the Americas and Europe.
  • Culture Chop Suey: Known in the book either as the Angrezi Raj or the New Empire, based in Delhi. Australia-New Zealand and South Africa are Viceroyalties (each having their own colonies). The old British accent vanished long before. Since the "Imperial English" used (at least in India and the elite) is mentioned as a pidgin language with heavy Hindi borrowings. Australia and the Cape use more "conservative" versions closer to the Victorians.
  • Deus Sex Machina:
  • Dances and Balls: On special occasions the Angrezi would revive old pre-Fall traditions, such as the waltz. The Royal Palace in Delhi actually has a Victorian-style ballroom specifically built for this purpose, with the men dressing in "classical" attire; out of convenience, however, women still prefer the sari - Indian climate leaves few choices of heavy 19th century European clothing.
  • Disney Villain Death: Count Ignatieff is stabbed by Athelstane and thrown from a zeppelin, and is described as splattering when he hits the ground.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The cult of Malik Nous in the remains of Russia worships one and believes bringing about the destruction of humanity will please him.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • It is said explicitly the Czar, despite running an empire of cannibals, had the same wishes as an ordinary ruler, to conquer lands, peoples and resources - while a faction of fanatic worshipers of the Black God seek to end humanity itself.
    • Count Ignatieff at some point muses he could be executed by the Okhrana for failure - but the Priests of the Fallen Black God could deal out worse things.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: A reader could be forgiven for thinking the book is an RPG transcript; Athelstane and co. have to deal with attacks from devil-worshipers, Afghans, ninjas, Thugee, bandits, white supremacists and air pirates! And practically all of them were bribed/manipulated/set up by Count Ignatieff.
  • Expy: The Kapenaar (Anglo-Afrikaner South Africans) are essentially The Draka if the British managed to restrain them. With the added touch of them being the only ones left wearing Pith helmets. They're even called the "Bad boys" of the Empire by Stirling himself.
  • Faux Yay: After Cassandra has been around court for a while, gossip spreads that she's sleeping with both Charles and Sita, much to her embarrassment. Sita, who is completely heterosexual, has a lot of fun teasing Cassandra by flirting and holding hands with her in public, and even implying that they are slipping off for a lesbian trust to get her bodyguards to keep their distance.
  • Feudal Future: It's more of a Victorian 20 Minutes into the Future:
    • The French are described as more or less pristine-European with some Islamic tinge (they've kept Marseilles the whole time though).
    • China and Japan are united under one throne, but very much autonomous and distinct from one another.
    • Brazil-dominated South America is filled with caudillos-of-the-month.
    • As for North America, it's the Wild West mixed with neo-barbarians. Outside from Angrezi and Dai-Nippon outposts, civilization still exists in the form of Mormon enclaves and Californian city-states.
    • In India, the Europeans have folded themselves quite neatly into the existing caste system (the train of logic being "the kshatriya varna are soldiers and administrators, the English are soldiers and administrators, hence the English are of the kshatriya varna"), and there is no social stigma attached to having Indian ancestors, though most Angrezi have, at most, thin Indian blood (the sahib-log, like most sub-castes, mostly marries within itself). Athelstane mentions that one of his great-grandmothers was a Rajput noblewoman, and there's an Afghan princess in Manfred Warburton's family tree. Otherwise they're both of pure European descent.
  • Five-Man Band: Using the group that operates together for much of the book yields the following -
  • Generation Xerox: Athelstane King and Narayan Singh, and their respective fathers, Eric and Ranjit.
  • Girls' Love: It's mentioned briefly that Cassandra once gave this a go, but was disappointed by the result. In the actual novel, Sita goes out of her way to make it look like she and Cassandra (her tutor) are having an affair. This is quite possibly the smallest amount of Les Yay in any S.M. Stirling book.
  • Going Native:
    • The British to the point of calling themselves the Angrezi Raj and the old British accent vanished long before. Since the "Imperial English" used (at least in India and the elite) is mentioned as a pidgin language with heavy Hindi borrowings.
    • It's implied that this is only applicable to India as Australia and the Cape are described as decidedly more culturally "conservative" by Angrezi standards, dressing and speaking much more like their European ancestors, though Cape English is substantially inflected with Afrikaans and Bantu.
    • This is oddly mirrored politically. The Angrezi parliament is dominated by the Whigs (The Rexin Kings are Whigs going back to the Old Empire) and the Conservatives (Tories). Australia always votes 2/3 Whig, the Cape 2/3 Tory, and India as the swing vote.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Oh so very much. The Kunwar is bound by his rajadharma for the good of the Angrezi Raj.
    • With the Russian, it turns into As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Stirling can't make up his mind whether to write the Russian phonetically or as a straight transliteration. The result is a garbled mixture between the two.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Sita's bodyguard and King-Emperor John.
  • Hero of Another Story: David bar Elias makes references to various adventures he's had all over the world.
  • Hollywood Tactics:
    • The Pathans, despite their claims to be exceptionally skilled warriors, fall into this a few times, from fighting to board a crippled airship instead of leaving it to slowly fall to the ground and reap the spoils, to Ibrahim Khan's comments which describe them betraying and robbing each other, taking prisoners for ransom to goad even worse reprisals over themselves, raiding the Angrezi lands although they know punitive expeditions will come after this and so on.
    • All of which are well-attested. The Pathans/Pushtun were historically a formidable bunch, but also natural anarchists, feudists, and inveterate raiders, traditions which flourish into the present.
    • Also, the airships use hydrogen as the lifting gas and have a nasty tendency to burn when they crash, which leaves little to loot.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Yasmini only comes up to Athelstane's chest.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Yasmini's precognition tells her the precise direction to point her gun and the exact moment to squeeze the trigger. She's got her eyes closed as she does.
  • In Spite of a Nail:
    • Australians, Afghans, Jews and Brazilians are implied to be more or less recognizable.
    • A number of real life figures still show up, such as Robert E. Howard (as an American tribal in the prequel) and Prince Charles.
  • King Incognito:
    • Henri de Vascogne turns out not to be just a random French aristocrat, but the heir to the throne. And Afghan adventurer Ibrahim Khan said his father was a ruler ... he just didn't mention Dad controls not one but twelve villages and "a strong hill-fort with a town at its feet."
    • Lampshaded in that from almost his second appearance, and increasingly more as we get to know him, it is strongly suggested not only by the author that he is, in fact, the Crown Prince of France, but that other people have noticed this as well and are keeping quiet about it. In fact, in the ultimate reveal of this, Sita berates him, not for hiding this fact from her, but for thinking that she actually didn't know less than a week after she met him!
  • The Men First: At one point, Charles was going to invoke this, but he didn't get the chance to: the doctor took a quick look at him, assessed his injuries as relatively minor, and headed over to treat the more seriously injured soldiers with him without a word.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: The favorite insult towards traitors is killer of men in the same uniform as you! No big deal for a Real Life 21st century man, who saw plenty of callous cruelty. A mortal insult in a world where "the different ones" were usually cannibal savages.
  • Mysterious Waif: Yasmini.
  • Mystical White Hair: Yasmini is a borderline example, having very pale blonde hair and a healthy dose of precognition
  • Nature Abhors a Virgin: Read the rest of this page and take a wild guess as to who this trope applies to.
  • Of Corsets Sexy: Somewhat averted, with Angrezi/British women having abandoned them for the sari. Frenchwomen, on the other hand, are another matter...
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Dr Ghose is a thinly-veiled Satyendra Nath Bose.
  • Psychic Powers: Yasmini and her fellow Dreamers
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The King-Emperor falls into this category.
  • Rebellious Princess: Sita exemplifies this trope.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: While the Angrezi (at least) are nominally a constitutional monarchy, the current royals wield much more power than Victoria ever did. This got an explanation from the author himself: the Raj grew in an environment of constant wars, punitive actions, harsh reprisals to impose a semblance of order, daring actions to retake cannibal-held lands, and this needed a militaristic and hands-on approach to government (with added flavor of reliance on technology and technical learning, since this was the only thing that gave "civilized" people the upper hand over barbarian cannibals), which has been held even after the pacification of the world. Rather ironically, the Real Life 20th century political system that grew in roughly similar conditions had been the Soviet Union.
  • Shout-Out: Many, given the book's status as a homage to old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure fiction. Referenced works include Flashman and Beau Geste.
    • The main character is named for Talbot Mundy's King of the Khyber Rifles, and his friend Narayan Singh for a character from Mundy's Jimgrim series.
    • Dai-Nippon is ruled by The Mikado.
    • The iconic painting of Disraeli at the Evacuation of Buckingham Palace (In-Universe, the moment the old world died and the Angrezi Raj was born) is an Irony towards the iconic status of the Crossing Of The Delaware.
    • The clock stopped at the hour of the same Evacuation is a reference to the clocks stopped at the exact hour of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's death.
  • Steampunk: Aside from the obligatory airships (see below), the book features giant mechanical Babbage-style primitive computers.
    • The more old-fashioned among the Angrezi (along with some Indians) still tend to wear top hats and frock coats. French fashions meanwhile have hardly changed since the 19th Century (complete with corsets), though with a very slight desert/Islamic tinge.
    • Also Schizo Tech: none of the surviving empires developed modern small arms, almost 150 years after the cataclysm they are stuck with Lee-Metford and Berdan rifles. Justified in universe, as weapon development beyond the bolt-action rifle had been the child of the arms race between France, Imperial Germany and Britain, and there was no longer any German Army to oppose Mauser 98s to the Angrezi Metfords. The most likely opponents were either cannibal savages or primitive tribes, many of whom wield flintlock Jezails, much as many of the real world afghans did up until the 1970s. Automobiles are a relatively new invention, which are not considered wholly reliable yet (the opening chapter mentions several army vehicles breaking down and needing to be towed back home by elephants).
      • Less justified is the fact that the Angrezi military still uses the Metford barrel system in its rifles, which was obsoleted in the mid 1890s with the British advent of smokeless powder. Somehow, in over a century of frontier wars, they have managed not to invent Cordite. (The afterword mentions that chemistry was the least advanced of the sciences due to the lack of the German chemical innovations.)
  • Virgin Power: Yasmini, but she loses it the only way possible.
  • Waif-Fu: Yasmini doesn't actually beat up men much larger than her with her bare hands, but she is more than capable in combat despite being, well, waifishly small (she poses as a 12-year-old at one point). Partly because her psychic powers let her know, without looking, exactly where to point a gun and when to pull the trigger.
  • Weddings for Everyone: Athelstane and Yasmini, Charles and Cassandra, Henri and Sita
  • The Wise Prince: Charles (who's implied to be the OTL Prince Charles).
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Powered by Stirling-cycle engines, which are a real thing by the way.