This is an alternate history set in a timeline where Caesar lived, he and Cleopatra prevailed, and the line descended from them continues to rule an empire dominated by Egypt over 1,800 years later. Lord Scott Oken, a British prince, a younger son of a line descended from both Caesar and Cleopatra (not just one or the other), is a young man who has made his career serving as a spy and agent for the Egyptian royal court.
His mentor and friend, Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke, is a Nubian prince, as high-ranking as anyone outside the immediate Egyptian royal family, and an expert in alchemy, which is to say poisons.
Oken, on a recent trip through Europe, uncovered evidence of a nasty plot involving ambitious native leaders in Britain, Oesterreich (Germany), and Russia. The details aren't clear, but there's a religious aspect as well as the political, and the group apparently calls itself the Black Orchid.
He arrives home from this trip just in time to help rescue Prince Mikel Mabruke from another, apparently unrelated, criminal conspiracy, known as the Red Hand.
With both men recovering from injuries and clearly targets, the Queen decides to send them a way for a while to investigate another mystery: among the Incas of the New World, someone claims to be planning to launch a trip to the Moon.
This world does have air travel, at least the Incas do, but even they have only what seem to be ornithopters, gaining lift from hydrogen, and powered and guided by humans and birds. It's a bit of a stunner when word reaches the Queen that the Incas are planning to launch mission to the Moon. The idea captures her imagination and, if it's true, and has a chance of succeeding, she wants to offer Egypt's support.
Surely this will be a relatively restful, restorative, but enlightening, journey for Oken and Prince Mabruke. What could go wrong?
I do have some complaints. Many centuries after a major historical change with huge downstream effects, we have numerous individuals with familiar names playing roles that just haven't changed enough. Leonardo da Vinci still painted Mona Lisa. Galileo still made his major breakthroughs in astronomy. Otto von Bismarck and Victoria & Albert are significant figures, and Verdi is still composing operas, although thankfully different ones. Ordinarily, I would regard this as a "hurl the book against the wall" offense, but Wheeler is insidious. Every time I hit one of these outrages, I roll my eyes and keep reading because, after all, I have to know what happens, right?
That's good writing, and really good story-telling, when what is ordinarily a major pet peeve for me has zero effect on my desire to keep reading. Not just this book; I hope we'll be seeing more from Wheeler, in this world and others.
Complaints about what I consider anachronisms aside, I like this projection of what an Egyptian-dominated empire might have become, as well as the further development of an Incan Empire that never fell because Europeans didn't arrive early enough or in large enough numbers to bring down it and every other Native American civilization with Europe's killer diseases. It feels plausible to me, and is well-executed enough to be the basis for a really engrossing story.
I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.