Michael Moorcock is a big name in sci/fantasy literary history. He was most well-known for his Elric series, which focused on an albino anti-hero satire of Conan the Barbarian. Lately, he’s more well-know for his alternate universe tales of airships and other mechanical oddities. These stories helped inspire the increasingly popular steampunk subgenre and authors from Alan Moore to Thomas Pynchon have paid homage to them.
Gloriana is another alternative universe tale, though there are no airships to be seen (a few clockwork devices manage to show up though). Instead, we get a different take on the reign of Elizabeth I in England, though here she is Gloriana of Albion. The biggest difference between this world and ours seems to be that the big monotheistic religions don’t exist – instead of God and Allah, people worship Roman and Norse gods. Instead of Henry VIII, sixteenth-century Albion was ruled by the brutal dictator Hern. His daughter, Gloriana, has restored peace to the burgeoning empire, but one of her advisors, Montfallcon, still uses spies to manipulate events. These spies include an especially devious rogue named Captain Quire, who soon develops his own agenda and eventually seduces the queen. All of these intrigues are made easier by the fact that the royal palace is the size of an entire town, and a hidden society manages to survive within the palaces walls.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a professional historian, so it’s probably not surprising that I enjoy historical fiction. This does extend to alternate history (another growing subgenre) as well. However, most alternate history serves to explore the machinery of fate, or the vagaries of cause and effect. If we change one event, how does that ripple outwards to alter the broader story? How much does one person matter in the scheme of things? Kim Stanley Robinson explores some of these questions in depth in The Years of Rice and Salt. Moorcock does not do the same here. Gloriana hues much more towards historical fantasy, a genre that I love on paper, but always feel disappointed by in practice. The alternate universe here exists solely for aesthetic reasons. It’s as if Moorcock wanted to tell a fairly standard Tudor tale (popular stuff for the last decade or so), but he didn’t want to have to worry about getting the historical details right. In this world, he can make up all the characters, create his own standards of morality and international politics, and generally play around as much as he likes. That’s all fine with me, but he loses much of the appeal to the alternate reality setting for me in the process.
Maybe “standard Tudor tale” is too harsh though. There are some intriguing allegories here. Furthermore, this is a well-written novel, and Moorcock manages to create a broad sense of Elizabethan language in the dialogue-heavy novel while still keeping the prose easy and fast-paced (basically, it’s Shakespeare light). There’s a lot to like here, but, in the end, I felt that the “truth” of our world’s Tudor England was more interesting than Moorcock’s fictional Albion.