Re-reading The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price: SF meets historical, when 21st century R&D plants an experimental time travel portal into the lawless border country of the north in the 16th century, a couple of dimensions removed from their own world. The handshake of the title is proverbial, the Sterkarms being mainly left handed and therefore in a sound position to shake hands with an enemy and simultaneously knife him in the guts.
A strong point of the story is the convincing rendering not only of historical details but of a truly different mindset: the Sterkarms’ psychology may not be really like 16th century reivers (how would we know?) but they are not modern people dressed in funny clothes. Characters are good too, all complex and interesting bar one – the villain of the piece. Windsor is disappointing, but then one has met people whose humanity seems to have been swallowed up in vanity and self-deception, so perhaps this can pass. The plot allows us to see the 21st side through 16th century eyes as well as the 16th through 21st eyes and the power between the sides wobbles interestingly.
I think my favourite moment is a segment almost in the middle when Young Per, the 16th century protagonist, is trying to find his way back to the time portal from the 21st side, escaping from Andrea, the young translator from the 21st whom he loves but has ceased to trust. On his journey he meets a 21st-side Sterkarm, who casts back to his dialect and roots, and begins to talk to Per. Andrea is trying to protect and help Per, but there is a delicious black comedy in her outrage that she has lost her monopoly over their communication, and that a total stranger can oust her in Per’s confidence merely because he is a Sterkarm and therefore family.
The ending too is satisfyingly ambivalent. Are we pleased with what happens? Did Andrea do right? Is it the best for Per and Andrea? Does anyone get justice?
I’ll be holding on to this for a few years and then I’ll start to think, “I must read that bit about Joe Sterkarm again…”