This is a great adventure story – funny, dramatic, and bittersweet – and my favorite SF novel that I’ve read this year. The old-fashioned tone is completely convincing and switches easily between humorous moments and serious ones. The exposition is really well done, in such a way that it’s probably quite accessible to people who don’t read much SF (although it doesn’t seem to be well known enough to get much of that readership).
Set a century and a half after a combination of peak oil + disease + economic collapse reduces modern civilization to Civil-War-level tech, this book takes place in a future North America where Canada is part of the United States, the presidency has become dynastic and is ruled by the Comstock family, and true political power is in the hands of the religious authority known as the Dominion. The post-apocalyptic society in the book emulates the 19th century, but it has all the American 19th century’s flaws, without some of its key virtues; the actual 19th century was a time of overall progress, while the society in the book is clearly in decline. Oh, and the United States is at war with the Dutch over control of the Northwest Passage.
The narrator, Adam Hazzard, is a young writer. Adam makes friends with the president’s nephew, Julian Comstock, whose life is loosely inspired by the life of Julian the Apostate. They get conscripted into the army while Julian is hiding his identity. Eventually Julian becomes a war hero and at the celebrations that follow, his actual identity is disclosed.
This review says that “Wilson himself described it by saying he was reading a US Civil War memoir called “Frank on a gunboat” and thought that was good as far as it went, but it would be better if it was Julian the Apostate on a gunboat and that’s what this book is.” Like the historical Julian, his goal is to reintroduce earlier traditions, but in this case, that means reimposing separation of church and state as public policy. Also, he wants to make a film about Darwin.
Along with Eifelheim Michael Flynn and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis this is one of the better science fiction books I’ve read that deals with religion although this one is coming at it from the other (irreligious) side. I loved everything about it and I will definitely read it again someday.