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Review: The Kingdoms

Updated: Sep 28

4/5 stars

The Kingdoms, by Natasha Pulley (2021)

Kingdoms is a very cool and complex Victorian-era/Georgian-era time travel book of speculative historical fiction. It's a mystery, an adventure, and, ultimately, a quiet, unconventional love story.


It begins in 1898. A man with no memory of his past steps off of a train into what at first appears to be London. He knows only that his name is Joe Tournier. As he looks around he begins to realize that everything is at once familiar and foreign. The city looks similar, but London is "Londres," everyone speaks French, and speaking English is suspicious, tending to indicate that you are part of a terrorist group called the Saints, based out of Edinburgh. This, as it turns out, is an alternate timeline where England is under French rule, having lost the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800's.


Joe is taken to a doctor, who explains that he has a form of epilepsy that has run rampant in recent years, categorized by profound memory loss, and hallucinations of places and people that don't exist. Eventually, Joe's owner - he's a slave, he learns - comes to fetch him, and bring him home to his work and his wife Alice. Joe must relearn history while he tries to settle into his "old life," none of which he can remember.


The only things he has to hold on to are vague recollections of someone named Madeline (was she his wife in another time or place?) and a man waiting for him on a beach, as well as a postcard he receives of a Scottish lighthouse, written by "M" and sent almost 100 years ago... but that particular lighthouse was only just built. Within a few years, Joe finds an excuse to travel to the lighthouse to investigate, and finds a concealed entryway in the ocean that allows for time travel. There he meets our second protagonist, Missouri Kite, ship's captain and brooding man-of-mystery, who seems to know much more about Joe's past than he's willing (or able) to share.


The main characters are deliciously complicated and tender, and the diversity represented is refreshing, with half-Chinese and half-Spanish gay men, and a lot of Black (in particular, Jamaican) characters as well.


Keeping the disparate timelines straight can get complicated, especially since changes in the past timelines change the future ones (definitely a book to read, not listen to), but Pulley does a good job of mapping things out. As with anything in the time-travel genre, you can't think about it too hard or it might fall apart. However, as Dexter Palmer writes is his NY Times review, "Time travel stories should be judged not by whether they are completely coherent, but by how artfully they conceal the fact that they are not. The Kingdoms manages the trick well."


This might be quite interesting to read a second time by skipping around to different chapters in order to read it in chronological order (but only after you've already read through once).

UP NEXT: If We Were Villains, by M.L. Rio



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