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WesternSFA
Three Princes
by Ramona Wheeler
Tor; $25.99, 349pp
Publication Date: February 4, 2014
Most alternative histories are quite close to the timeline we know.  This is not one of those. Here the divergence happened so long ago that almost nothing is as we know it – always excepting, of course, human nature.

In the backstory of Three Princes, Julius Caesar had the great good sense to stay with Cleopatra and start a dynasty with her that becomes the ruling family of the Egyptian Empire. 2000 years later, their descendants govern the better part of two continents (or three, if you count Europe as separate from Asia, a cultural distinction that is not borne out by geography.)

Memphis may be the capital of the dominant world power, but the best agents still come from the north of the island Albion it seems. Lord Scott Oken is a scion of the ruling family, and he serves his family best as an international spy.  He is very popular with the ladies, and even if he prefers a certain dancer above all other women, he does not refuse other invitations. This leads him to some exquisite boudoirs and amorous encounters, and occasionally to getting beaten up and dumped in an alley.

Scott’s best friend is Prince Mikel Mabruke, who also serves the royal family as a spy, but for cases that are much closer to home.  When he is almost killed, and his cover is almost blown, the two men are sent as ambassadors to the other world power, the Incan civilization across the ocean. (Never having had a Dark Ages, the Egyptian empire never lost the related sciences of geometry and geography, or the knowledge of the Earth’s dimensions.)

While the Egyptians have concentrated on dominating land and sea, the Incans have focused on developing air ships – and now rockets. Emperor Yupanqui XII wishes to send his people to the moon. Scott and Mikel are tasked with determining if this venture will pose a threat to their family’s sovereignty, or finances. Prince Viracocha becomes their guide, showing the wonders of the latest airship designs and introducing them to such novelties as chocolate. I love the scene when Scott and Mikel attend a premiere of an opera by Verdi that romanticizes the history of a cliff-dwelling civilization to the north.

But a certain disgruntled Queen and King named Victoria and Albert aspire to make their kingdom the next empire on which the sun never sets.  Some personalities are too strong to be contained by timelines.  When a man named Otto van Bismarck takes an interest in politics, and explosives, Scott and Mikel find that what started as a pleasant working vacation becomes a deadly serious affair.

I loved every aspect of this book, savoring the sensual descriptions, enjoying the distinctive characterizations, almost forgetting to breathe towards the end. Definitely one of the best books in either alternative history or steampunk genres.  ~~ Chris R. Paige

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