1588: Queen Elizabeth is felled by an assassin's bullet. Within the week, the Spanish Armada had set sail, and its victory changed the course of history.
1968: England is still dominated by the Church of Rome. There are no telephones, no television, no nuclear power. As Catholicism and the Inquisition tighten their grip, rebellion is growing.
First published in 1968, these intricately linked short stories (broken into six measures and a coda) constitute a pioneering work of alternative history that has influenced many contemporary SF and fantasy writers. In them a twisted Church of Rome rules a modern world where steam locomotives are the primary mode of transportation, semaphores (telegraph signals moved by hand and read via binoculars) are used for communication and the horrors of the Inquisition continue. Why? Because in 1588 Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated, leading to the Spanish Armada's defeat of England and the subsequent suppression of the Protestant Church. But in this stately "dance" of stories, revolution becomes inevitable when society's natural cultural and scientific progress can no longer be contained. Roberts displays intense respect and love for history as he rewrites it with deft abandon. Three measures in particular stand out as profound today, just as they did when originally published: "The Signaller," which allegorically portrays a young guild member who pays a high price for his dedication to communication; "Brother John," a stunning portrayal of a devoted priest's traumatizing encounter with torture and his resultant reaction; and, finally, "The White Boat," another almost mythological piece about a young girl's obsession with a boat that can take her to freedom. All the other stories are excellent, but these are outstanding examples of why revolutions occur. Impact is doing a great service by reprinting this and other classics.