If you loved The Bedlam Stacks, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street or the Lost Future of Pepperharrow (and I know I did) then good news, Natasha Pulley has written another mind-bending-in-the-best-way novel, The Kingdoms, which plays with our perceptions of time, picking apart and reconstructing possible futures like one of Keita Mori’s clocks.
In Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, Joe Tournier wakes up in Londres on a train from Scotland, wearing clothes he doesn’t recognise and with no knowledge of how he got there. Now he comes to think of it, he can’t remember anything. He’s totally lost his memory and is taken to a psychiatric hospital to help with his sudden case of amnesia. While he’s there, he has a brief memory of a woman Madeline, who he thinks must be his wife. But when an advert is posted in the paper and his family come to claim him, he learns that he is a slave, and while he does have a wife, her name isn’t Madeline, and she’s unhappy in her marriage to him as she’d planned to marry his brother Toby who died in the army. But beyond the memory loss, something doesn’t seem right, and when Joe receives a post card from a Scottish island which was sent to him 100 years ago and written in English (a criminal offense) asking him to come back if he remembers, signed by M. he knows he must do everything to get to Scotland in case this is the Madeline he had forgotten.
A slight departure from her previous books which are linked within the same part steampunk part magic realist world with an overlapping cast of characters, this book is set in an alternate timeline which sees the French win the Battle of Trafalgar before it’s even started, changing the course of the Napoleonic wars and ultimately rewriting history as we know it. A group of architects and engineers inadvertently sail through a gateway to the past on a steam powered ship and are captured by the French, which allows them to access futuristic technologies and knowledge of the military history of Trafalgar and get the jump on the British, leaving an alternate future in which England is a part of the French Republic, slavery is both legal and rife, and Scotland is, ironically enough, the last stronghold of English independence.
I personally love any story that explores what the good doctor referred to as the timey-wimey stuff, and I think that this is a great concept. It has the hallmarks of what I’ve come to expect from Natasha Pulley’s writing, sheer originality and inventiveness, a strong emotionally focused m/m relationship, a rich woman railing against the restrictions of her time, history with a twist, and incongruous animals quietly playing critical roles (this time four tortoises) written with a brilliant playfulness and poignancy. Without giving too much away, because this is definitely one to read, I really loved the ways that changes in the past drastically and specifically altered the identities and fates of characters in the future. A timely reminder that the past is a part of us all, and the roles that generational wealth and privilege have played in making us who we are today.