Altair: A Record of Battles, Volume One collects the first fasıls (as the author calls her chapters) of Kotono Katō’s manga series.
The continent of Rumelania is dominated by two great powers: the Türkiye stratocracy and the Balt-Rhein empire. Both are limited meritocracies, both are expansionist. Türkiye prefers persuasive annexation; Balt-Rhein has opted for outright conquest.
Mahmut lost his family and entire clan to war when he was a young boy. Determined to prevent another destructive war, he is the stratocracy’s youngest pasha and perhaps its most idealistic. Alas for Mahmut’s pacifism, it only takes one great power (one clearly based on the Holy Roman Empire) to start a war.
In fact, it only takes one faction within Balt-Rhein to bring Balt-Rhein and Türkiye to the brink of war.
Volume One details two attempts by Prime Minister Louis of Balt-Rhein to dismember and annex Türkiye. While Balt-Rhein’s forces outnumber Türkiye’s ten to one, the pro-war faction within Balt-Rhein has not achieved dominance. Louis must resort to subterfuge.
The first engineered crisis: Minister Franz of the empire is slain with an arrow bearing the distinctive markings of the stratocracy. An outraged empire delivers an ultimatum to the stratocracy: either surrender a suitably high official to the empire (to explain the assassination, or more likely to be executed for it) or face all out war. Zaganos, leader of Türkiye’s own pro-war faction, believes that the Divan (the cabinet) should simply accept that war is inevitable. Sehir Khaul, leader of the pacifists, believes war would be a grave error. Rather than put the nation at risk, he volunteers to be the envoy to Balt-Rhein.
Mahmut spots a crucial detail: the arrow that killed Franz may have born stratocracy markings, but it was fashioned in a manner common only in the empire. Clearly, Franz was murdered by an imperial trying to frame Türkiye. Since Emperor Goldbalt’s support for war is tepid, Mahmut and Sehir Khaul may be able to convince Goldbalt that the stratocracy is innocent … but only if the pair manage to reach the city of St. Michael alive.
Second engineered crisis: Mahmut’s closest (and possibly only) friend Ibrahim inexplicably allows the town of Hisar to rise up against the stratocracy. Although Hisar announces its independence, it is located in a vital region, one that borders both the Empire and the stratocracy. If Türkiye cannot control the town, the empire most certainly will try to take it. By a strange coincidence, the empire’s prime minister just happens to have a large army in the general vicinity of the border. It’s almost as though he knew that the uprising was coming.
To preserve peace (at least for the moment) and the stratocracy’s defences, not to mention keeping Ibrahim’s head firmly seated on his shoulders, Mahmut must infiltrate Hisar, discover the motivation for the revolt, learn why is it is that none of the stratocracy’s officials are willing to suppress the uprising, and unravel the plot before Louis’ army can arrive. All this before the Divan can decide upon a forceful, Hisan-leveling response to the crisis.
At least Mahmut has dancing girl Shara on his side.
Dancing girl Shara is one of Mahmut’s more reliable friends (useful where Ibrahim is worse than useless). She gets Mahmut where he needs to be and manages to survive the upheavals in Hisar. Even though she is trained in dance and music, not combat. Resourceful lady.
I don’t know how to classify Altair. It’s not really alternate history, because Rumelania is not Eurasia. On the other hand, it’s inspired by specific elements drawn from Eurasian history. It’s not fantasy — or if it is, the fantastic elements have not yet manifested. I suppose it belongs to the same quasi-mundane secondary universe genre as Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise.
Louis has to be sneaky for a couple of reasons. First, not everyone in the empire wants war. Second, while the empire has huge armies, it seems likely that the empire’s history of brutal conquest means that many of its armies are tied up keeping the provinces subjugated. As well, the empire is vast; getting forces from one side of their dominions to the other takes a lot of time. The empire has a lot of resources, but few of them are quickly available.
There are a number of parallels between Altair and The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Both, for example, set two great powers against each other. Both Altair’s Balt-Rhein and Arslan’s Lusitania are modelled after European nations. Altair’s Türkiye and Arslan’s Pars take Middle Eastern nations (Ottoman Turkey and pre-Islamic Persia, respectively) for their inspiration. Both Altair and Arslan feature leads who are extremely young for their roles.
There are, of course, some profound differences, not least of which is that Louis is merely ambitious, whereas the Lusitanians are led by gibbering religious fanatics who gleefully toss babies into open fires. Where Pars has some fairly profound flaws (the legions of unhappy slaves, the fact Pars is ruled by an overconfident dolt of questionable legitimacy), Türkiye’s main problem appears to be that it’s so much smaller than its enemy1. The disagreements we see are arguments about best methods, not goals: Sehir Khaul and Zaganos want to preserve Türkiye, even if they don’t agree on how to do that.
Readers familiar with the Ottoman Empire may find this particular take on it unusually rosy. I imagine the manga would be popular in Turkey, but perhaps less so in the Balkans or the former Holy Roman Empire.
In this volume at least, Mahmut seems annoyingly infallible. Since he is a pacifist general in an empire whose primary enemy is determined to provoke war, presumably war and some major setbacks are headed his way. Which may be interesting.
I’ll give the second volume a try, but unless it interests me more than this one did, I don’t think I will pursue the series further.
1: The stratocracy may be a meritocracy of sorts, but they don’t seem to have a deep bench. Otherwise, Ibrahim would not have risen as high as he has. They should have known that he was not fit to govern (even if he is an all-round pleasant bloke). Exhibit A: his moustache. No one with any sort of common sense would sport a moustache like that.