I’ve never really been one for alternate history—I’ve always been a history person, and something about the subgenre has always seemed a little superficial to me, a little too easy. The idea that changing one thing will completely change the future is dramatic, sure, but rarely are there singular points in history where the future can be so drastically altered by changing one thing, and even if such moments exist, it seems like hubris to suggest that we could easily pinpoint them. History isn’t a stairway, it’s a tapestry. One lost thread rarely changes the image.
All of that said, I love J. Gregory Keyes’ alt-history quartet The Age of Unreason, even though it clearly violates the narrative sins I elucidated above. It grabbed me from the first book, Newton’s Cannon, and never quite let go. The premise is a fun, fantastical one: instead of discovering the laws of physics, Isaac Newton discovered the laws of alchemy instead. He is tasked by Louis XIV to create a weapon to help France in its battle against England, a weapon that would devastate her enemies. Across an ocean, a young Benjamin Franklin searches for his own path to alchemy, and is pursued by an enemy from whom only Newton can protect him. What these two unleash together are changes that confront the order of the world.
Newton’s Cannon is followed by three more books: A Calculus of Angels, Empire of Unreason, and The Shadows of God. Throughout the series, Keyes brings in a range of other historical figures, from Peter the Great to Blackbeard the pirate. By placing his alternate reality story within a fantasy context, Keyes frees himself from the constraints of known history without damaging too much our sense of disbelief that a few things playing out differently could so alter the course of the past (and future). What plays out is a wonderfully absorbing tale, an examination of the dangers of political power—especially when it’s aided by magic.
The intersection of magic and political power has, of course, been examined before and since in any number of fantasy novels, but Keyes’ series retains a particular charm. There’s already something undeniably exciting about introducing alchemy into the world, our world, in place of another system of knowledge, and then you add to the mix scenes of Renaissance-era sorcerers calling asteroids down from the heavens to be used as weapons. In many ways, it seems to argue that science, and scientific thinking, is a sort of equalizer: it’s understood and universal, calculable and measurable. Magic is another beast altogether: willful, malicious, unpredictable, and devastating when misused.