By Natasha Pulley
Speculative fiction and historical fiction are closer cousins than one might think, and alternate-history novels (such as Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” or William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s “The Difference Engine”) can give enterprising writers the chance to work in both genres at once. Fans of such stories will be richly entertained by the lavish world-building and breakneck plotting of Natasha Pulley’s “The Kingdoms,” and it’s best to approach the book knowing as little as possible, in order to experience the reveal of its setting along with its amnesiac protagonist. (Minor spoilers follow, so first I’ll spoil this review — effusive praise, with the occasional quibble.)
We begin in Victorian England, retro-futuristic, full of familiar soot and smoke, but showing some key differences: Two of its major cities are “Londres” and “Pont du Cam,” and the former’s rail network is called the “Métro,” with a suspicious accent hovering over the e. It turns out that we’re in an alternate timeline in which England has been annexed by the French, the result of Britain’s decisive loss in the Napoleonic Wars decades before. But things get complicated: In a cleverly executed narrative development that reads as if Patrick O’Brian were borrowing from the film “The Final Countdown,” a wormhole is discovered that allows ships to travel through time, and the beleaguered Georgian-era English use this portal to harvest military technology from their Victorian future, in a last, desperate plan to turn the tide of the war.
The story shifts between various time periods as the protagonist, Joe Tournier, becomes involved in an attempt to change history. He spends much of the novel’s early pages in a state of bewilderment, not entirely due to the intermittent amnesia that results from time travel: Other characters have a habit of withholding crucial information from poor Joe about his surroundings and identity, or supplying it piecemeal, as if they wish to prolong his suspense. This becomes less of an immediate concern once the narrative begins to accelerate through a page-turning procession of kidnapping, imprisonment, romance and naval warfare — the last rendered in compelling, gory detail. (Beautiful, surreal imagery appears throughout the novel, too. A description of a town on the Outer Hebrides that’s suddenly beset by a strange winter is particularly memorable.) Eventually, a somewhat sufficient reason is supplied for the reticence of Joe’s companions, though by then readers most likely will have guessed his secret. If there’s no mystery here, the dramatic irony that takes its place is a fine substitute.
A small, irresolvable core of illogic is usually the price to be paid for the pleasure of a story in which effect precedes cause, and so 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. Pulley mostly plays fair with her plotting, even with her sly misdirections, and in the novel’s bittersweet final pages things click neatly into place. Readers of historical fiction who view the genre as a chance to pit their talent for pedantry against the author’s will find a strong opponent. Excepting the rare use of anachronistic slang (unprintable here), the time periods are meticulously detailed, and the changes caused by altering history (such as the Chunnel, or something like it, existing in 1900) are carefully worked out.
It’s 400-odd pages but reads as if it’s half as long. Clear a weekend if you can, and let yourself be absorbed.