Alternate histories – with their roads not taken and mix of real and supposition – can be dreams come true for junkies of world-building — and Ramona Wheeler's Three Princes might contain enough awesome to make you overdose.
Though the most common times to twist into alternate history are those surrounding World War II, Wheeler takes us back almost 2000 years. In this world, Julius Caesar stayed with Cleopatra VII, and didn't go home to get stabbed a bunch of times by his ex-friends.
1877 years later (as near as I can tell, sometime around our year 1840-50) Egypt still rules a Euro-Afric-Near-Asian Empire. Which is probably a good thing for everyone, as they have gotten rid of slavery, renounced conquest by war and handle most of their statecraft using spies.
Without a dark age, Egypt has come to dominate all glass-based technology, putting them far ahead of us on the green energy revolution. Beyond these changes, plenty of real historical events and people appear, but that doesn't mean their world is overly similar to ours. Men wear traditional Egyptian makeup, jewelry and wigs, and if you're looking for some cosplay inspiration, you might want to pick up a copy of the book just for the descriptions of outfits. In fact, descriptions are where Wheeler excels – no one needs to wonder what an Incan aerodrome might look like, because they can build it from her description.
The men in those costumes are Scott Oken, a prince from Mercia in Albion, and Mikel Mabruke, a prince from Nubia. Though they are not from Egypt itself, they are about as Egyptian as it gets, at least in this world. Both are stoic and brilliant, fond of secret trysts, and professional spies. Mikel spends most of his time training spies and the book tells of his first foray into the field in a long time. Suitably, the job should be a milk run — but it doesn't turn out that way at all.
The two have been sent to find out if rumors of the Inca-Aztecan Empire's attempts to travel to the Moon are true. Seeing as how the Incans have had lighter than air travel for a millennia (they "discovered" the Egyptians when they landed in Morocco in about 900) that's not quite as crazy as it sounds. But this easy job goes off the rails (aqueduct highway?) thanks to assassins, a European terrorist loyal to Queen Victoria, a mentally disturbed heir to the Incan throne, and an opera dancer. Along with the Incan prince, Viracocha, they do their best to discover the truth behind the rumors and get the right man on the throne.
Scott and Mikel have a sort of quiet confidence that struck me as remarkably British; somewhat recognizable from certain versions of Sherlock Holmes; unflappability must come with running the 19th century. They are impeccably dressed, stand on the firmest moral ground, enjoy the best arts and food, and are smarter than everyone around them. They are men of education and empire (both with capital Es). They view the Incans they meet as equals, even though they're somewhat exotic (Wheeler gives far too many Incan costumes over to body paint and nothing more).
Though it's about spies, Three Princes is not a thriller or overly plotted. The characters are so intent on being good and representing Egypt as the "talk-to-me nation" that they become entirely reactive to the plots of a host of bad guys. Mikel and Scott take every opportunity to be kidnapped – or rather, are taken. The whole thing felt a little sloppy until the end, when not one, nor two, but three couples fell instantly and madly in love. It was so over the top, I had to admit the whole book must be something of a pastiche – Three Princes is meant to feel like it was written in 1870. It's not that the book is ever slow, it's just that it eschews some of the more obviously Save-The-Cat type story beats for something a bit more indirect.
By the book's end, Wheeler moves into place more than a few pieces that suggest sequels may follow (What is Victoria up to in the Oesterreich? Will the Black Orchid spread monotheism across the land? Can Egypt stop the Red Hand gang's slave trading?) that I wouldn't mind exploring with her. But I find myself more drawn to the more empty spaces in the story. What is going on in their equivalent to China? What is up with their sexual mores? Will the Turtle Confederation (in our North America) play a larger role in the next story?
Ignoring the overly generic Spin Doctors-esque title – seriously the book could be about anything – Three Princes is written in a way that makes it seem like it may, in fact, be an artifact from a very foreign, yet familiar, timeline.