In a future after all the easy oil is gone, Wilson posits that technology regresses to roughly a 19th century level -- taking a different tack from The Windup Girl, where biological technology takes over for cheap-energy technology. Various calamities and political unheavals are largely taken as read, and the clerics of the Dominion wield extensive political power in an American of haves (aristos) and have-nots (indentured servants). In something of a literary device, the Dominion has banned books of the 20th and 21st centuries, allowing only wholesome fiction from the 19th century to flourish alongside its own religious treatises. Having been brought up in this sort of pseudo-Victorian milieu, the characters of the novel use diction more evocative of 150 years ago than 150 years from now, giving the book something of an alternative history feel rather than an alternative future feel. The America of the 22nd century also seems to owe a bit to the political maneuvering of Imperial Rome, where generals and armies can make or break a president.
Our titular hero is the President's nephew, whose father was assassinated by the President for being too popular. Julian, not wishing to follow in his father's footsteps, has been hiding out in the provinces, but fate has a way of bringing him to prominence. Much of the book sets the stage and follows his adventures through wartime against the Mitteleuropans in Labrador and almost-inevitable rise to political fame. The story is narrated by Julian's exceedingly naive friend, Adam, who becomes a celebrated author for his memoir of Julian's campaign. There is some deft writing as we see through situations that are opaque to Adam.
Once the scene changes to the nation's capital -- New York -- the book turns toward the tragic and more serious. I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying, as events and decisions rush abruptly toward tragedy in defiance of sense. Which is not to say all is gloom and doom; there are elements of humor as well. Julian takes it upon himself to make a film of the Life of Charles Darwin, working from non-Dominion-approved texts, naturally. Finding Darwin's life somewhat devoid of the proper drama for a film, Adam helps to provide the adequate spice: "The attending crowd of Aesthetes and Apostates was not easily impressed, but cheering broke out among them, and triumphant shouts when Darwin pierced the Pirate Captain with his sword."
America, Fuck Yeah!
On the whole, very enjoyable, well-realized, and clever. But inasmuch as I can't really see the future of that world occuring, it does not serve as a cautionary tale or social critique in the way that The Handmaid's Tale does. And Julian suffers in that comparison, at least as far as being a great work of litrachoor.