Beware of Scottish standing stones! It was true in the Outlander series and it’s true in Natasha Pulley’s new novel, The Kingdoms. This book might be Pulley’s most complicated story yet. It crosses history with alternate history, love and suppressed love, characters blinking in and out of existence, amnesia and shifting identities, and lots of conflicting motives. This sounds confusing. I’m not going to lie; parts of The Kingdoms are confusing. But I was hooked on figuring out what the heck was going on and the charmingly bewildered main character.
Joe wakes up on a train somewhere in England in 1891. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s not entirely sure what his name is. And when he learns that the train has just pulled into the Gare du Roi in Londres, he suddenly gets the feeling that something is seriously wrong. On arriving at the station, Joe is whisked off to the new Salpêtrière and told that he, like many other Britons, has a kind of epilepsy that has caused him to lose his memory. Readers with a dollop of French and a smidgen of history will know that this London—now Londres—is one where England was successfully invaded by the French, instead of an England that won at the Battle of Waterloo. Joe has no idea what’s wrong; he barely knows what his name is. So when two people show up at the hospital and claim him as an escaped slave, he has little choice but to go with them and try to settle into some kind of life.
The feeling of wrongness doesn’t go away in spite of Joe’s efforts. So, when he has the opportunity to travel to a lighthouse that has some link to his lost past, Joe finagles a trip to the wild, unconquered north. And then The Kingdoms starts to get really weird. Joe is kidnapped and whisked through time to 1807, finding himself in the middle of a very different version of the Napoleonic Wars. The strange stones off the coast of Eilean Mor in Scotland is where everything went wrong. It’s where, in 1797, a steam-powered ship blundered through from an England that won the war against Napoleon. It’s also where a man named Jem fell overboard and the ship and the crew were captured by the French. Not only does the ship, The Kingdom, represent a lot of advanced technology for the French, its crew is also a wealth of knowledge that the French can use to manipulate the future. Poor Joe and his engineering knowledge are caught in the middle of all of this. It’s not until much later that he learns how he got involved and just what his connection is to the disturbing and invincible Captain Missouri Kite.
The Kingdoms is the kind of time-travel/alternate history story that fascinates me. I love to think about historical what-ifs and might-have-beens. I like to follow chains of events back to moments that might be turning points. If this happens instead of that at just this moment, what will the downstream effects be? And, on top of that, what’s the “right” version if there is such a thing as “right”? After all, we wouldn’t think anything was wrong if the French had won at Trafalgar. It would just be history as we know it. Why should Joe help Missouri and the English win? He has no idea which side offers the better future.
Pulley’s other novels—and I’m thinking specifically of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street here—had whimsy to leaven the heavy moments. The Kingdoms, on the other hand, is a very serious book. There are several moments of surprising violence that stunned me and I completely lost track of the number of explosions. If anything lightens this book up, it’s the hints of love between Joe and Missouri that appear in the brief, quiet moments. The hope that Joe might finally recapture his lost memory and the hope that he and Missouri will be able to be together are what pulled me through this twisty, turn-y, exciting novel.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.