Alternative-history novels are fairly common now, stories where history diverged because of a single changed event. What is less common is alt-history fantasy. Historical alt-history fantasy is least common of all. Back in 1988, Melissa Scott, better known for her science fiction works, pulled this rarest of stories off beautifully.
Continuing my reviews of “lost treasures,” I discovered this book in its first printing, and The Armor of Light forever lit my interest in historical fantasy. Together, Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett pulled off a triple-crown performance by writing an Elizabethan Age fantasy novel in which the magic felt real and period-specific, the historical details, right down to the proper descriptions for clothing and the habits of the day, felt right and natural, and the story–really about the shaping of a king–took flight on the wings of great personal dramas.
The story itself took off from a decision-point known to anyone well versed in English literature. In 1586, Sir Philip Sydney died from a bullet-wound taken in the Battle of Zutphen, at the age of 31, leaving one of the great literary works of the day, Arcadia, unfinished. While only a marginal political figure when he died, Sydney was known as an exemplar of the courtly and Renaissance virtues, a soldier, scholar, poet, and courtier, a true knight. In the world of The Armor of Light, he lived, and ten years later, he is summoned by Queen Elizabeth to protect her heir-of-choice, King James the Sixth of Scotland, from a sorcerer’s plot. Because, you see, in this world, Sir Philip Sydney, poet and scholar, is also a master of the arts of magic, the student of Dr. Dee, the discoverer of Virgil’s scrolls, and the only scholar-magician capable of protecting England’s future king and, perhaps, guiding him to a different path.
There is so much fun to be had in this book (the scene where Mephistopheles tempts Christopher Marlow is priceless), and the intrigue and political maneuverings will be enough for anybody who likes the historical in historical fantasy. The co-authors do a good enough job on the characters that even readers completely unfamiliar with most of the dramatis personae will enjoy getting to know them. While it is a little slow in places, the layered plotting and personal dramas demand a leisurely pace, and there is plenty of conflict and danger to carry it along. The magic is Elizabethan magic, depending on virtues and correspondences and inseparable from the magical and religious practices of the day. It is a treat on all levels. The Armor of Light is sadly out of print, although it can be found in used/excellent condition through Amazon.com.