The Last Ringbearer, is an alternative take on the Lord of the Rings universe and has been translated into several languages.
The time of action is autumn 1861. The four principal characters (Rastoropshin, an officer of Russian military intelligence; Vetlugin, traveller and naturalist from the Russian Geographical Society; Rivera, a bounty hunter employed by the Russian-American Company; and Padre Ignacio, prefect of the Jesuit mission in Texas) are introduced into the narration as 'units' from Sid Meyer's classical strategy games Civilization and Colonization: 'Scout', 'Adventurer', 'Assassin' and 'Jesuit Missionary'. Actions of the characters twice cause 'bifurcations' in the plot, directing the further course of history by different trajectories, precisely as can happen in a computer game after reloading.
The initial historical divergence is in 1723. Alexander Menshikov, a powerful minion of Peter the Great, falls into deep disgrace. Hoping to win back the Tsar's favour, he masterminds the colonization of the Pacific Coast of America by Old Believers, who (like Puritans and Huguenots elsewhere) were persecuted for religious reasons in Russia -- as well as by thousands of his own serfs, who could be transported anywhere with or without their consent.
(In our reality, the Spanish colonisation of California started much later: the first settlement at the site of the future Los Angeles was founded in 1781, and the fort of San Francisco was built even later). Menshikov and his Old Believers claim possession of the Gulf for Peter the Great, and found on its shores the city of Petrograd, on the site of present-day San Francisco. They find the Central Valley has excellent conditions for agriculture, and almost immediately discover gold.
Connection with the mother country is immediately severed: the 'invasion fleet' built on the Siberian shores by Dutch shipwrights specially hired by Menshikov, was made of damp wood and could serve only once. California, left to its own devices, proves to be quite viable and establishes (after a brief border conflict over gold) quite good neighborly relations with Spanish Lower California. The Tsarist government has no power or opportunity to interfere directly with the life of the overseas colony, keeping it as a kind of protectorate.
Russian-Spanish-Amerindian in population, California realises an old Russian dream: the Free Rus', heiress to the Hanseatic Novgorod Republic, which was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible and which could have led Russia on to the European path of development.
A very peculiar corporate state is established in California, ruled by an assembly of representatives of the richest merchant houses; it has no representative government and no civil liberties (like 'freedom of the press'), but has a quite high, for its time, level of private freedom (along the lines of Pierre Trudeau's 'There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation'), complete religious tolerance, no racism, some social guarantees (such as free primary education) and extensive social mobility. It is a country with a high level of industrial development, advanced science and education (in the real Russian Empire, Old Believers were in fact the main drivers of trade, industrialization and education), a small army and navy equipped with state-of-the art weaponry (that's where the steampunk element comes in) and highly professional private intelligence services (modeled on those of the republics of Genoa and Venice) of the ruling Houses.
It is neighbored by an ally, the Free Confederation of Texas, made up of 'states' of peaceful Amerindians (Cherokee, Navajo and Pueblo), created by the Jesuit order and modeled on Paraguay, Ukrainian Cossacks (from the Zaporizhian Sich, which was dismantled by Catherine the Great), self-governing urban communities of German emigrants (the capital of Texas is the port of New Hamburg, on the site of today's Houston) and many 'gens de couleur libres' from New Orleans, driven from Louisiana by white racism following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It is a combination of a veritable melting pot (one of the secondary characters is a black officer of the Texas counter-espionage service) and civil liberties with German Ordnung.
The main action of the novel begins in 1861, the year of the Emancipation Manifesto in Russia and the start of the war between the North and South in the United States. Californians refuse to recognize the Tsar's Manifesto, and the 'freed' serfs are precisely the ones who protest: 'serfdom' in paternalistic California has long since mutated into a system of important social guarantees for the rural population, and the 'serfs' have no desire whatsoever to lose these guarantees in exchange for an unknown 'freedom'. All indications point to the prospect of a Petrograd version of the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence.
The action begins with a series of enigmatic deaths of high-ranking officials in St. Petersburg, seemingly masterminded either by the intelligence service of one of the Houses of California or by competing forces in the ruling elite of the Russian Empire. On his return from the Caucasus to St. Petersburg, Captain Rastoropshin (an operative of the James Bond sort, a veteran of the Great Game between the Russian and British intelligence in the East) gets involved in a brutal secret war between the Topographic Service of the General Staff (military intelligence) and the Third Department (the secret police of the Tsar). He goes to Russian America via Texas as a member of an international expedition of the Russian Geographical Society aimed at demarcating the border between California, Texas and the United States in the Great Basin.
Having arrived in New Hamburg, Rastoropshin and Vetlugin become witnesses to and unwilling participants in events that eventually will lead to an unexpected outcome: Texas and California will become involved in the war between the North and South, on the side of the Southerners (with whom they do not really sympathize) while California is (also unwillingly) forced to declare independence from the Russian Empire.
The ending of the novel is open. However, it is clear that the South, suddenly blessed with such allies as industrialized Texas and wealthy California, has a fighting chance to hold the ground in its defensive war against the North. Thus, at least four 'Americas' can come into existence in the continent of North America, which have different social systems: one Russian, one German and two English (North and South); the question about the dissolution of Canada into the English and the French parts is not raised directly, but this scenario can be expected.
[Editor's Note: If you are interested in reading a translated version of this story, please let Yisroel know in the comments.]
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Yisroel Markov was born in Russia in 1960s and has lived in the USA since 1987. An accountant, he lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and has translated The Last Ringbearer for the fun of it.