One of the best things about signing up to a NetGalley account is knowing you have a better than even chance of coming across a book that, while it is yet to be published, you can read it before most other people, and then tell the world how great it is, knowing somehow you’ve done your part to boost its success in the eyes of its authors, publishers, and future readers. All this to say, I’ve just finished reading The Kingdoms by British writer Natasha Pulley and you should at this very moment stop what you’re doing and order it from whatever online service works for you. This book is a heart-breaking but life-affirming masterpiece, all wrapped up in a plot that is complex and poignant.
The Kingdoms is initially set in the year 1898, where Natasha Pulley imagines an alternate history in which England lost the Battle of Trafalgar to France, resulting in the French invading London and installing itself as the ruling power and households now have English people as slaves. There is resistance from Scotland, where a group known as the Saints fight back when and where they can. Joe Tournier steps off a train in London having travelled from Edinburgh and finds that his hold on reality is vanishing rapidly. An enforced stay at a psychiatric hospital reveals he suffers from a type of amnesia brought on by epileptic episodes. Eventually he is identified and returned to a family that has enslaved him. He has a wife he doesn’t recognise and life he’s not familiar with, but he gets by because it’s what’s expected of him. His world is further turned upside down when he receives a postcard from someone called ‘M’, dated nearly 100 years in the past. Through a series of events and choices, Joe makes his way to Edinburgh, to the lighthouse pictured on the postcard, and soon he’s in another time and place.
Joe is the character through which we experience this new world, but he’s not the only person we connect to. Missouri Kite is a Spanish pirate who has joined the English resistance and using the portal near the lighthouse though which ships can travel from one time to another, he kidnaps Joe hoping to use the man’s knowledge of future technology to reshape the past and restore balance and history. But with every action in the past, the future itself becomes uncertain. Joe is afraid that if he helps Missouri and his sister Agatha then he will lose his own place in time and his daughter may very well fade into non-existence. But he feels a profound connection to the Spaniard, and there’s almost a symbiotic relationship between the two. There is more going on between then than meets the eye.
Two things must be real for me to enjoy a book, particularly one from the genre of speculative fiction and fantasy. The world-building while complex must ring true, and the characters have to jump out of the page and hold you until their story is done, leaving you to pick up the pieces of your life when the book is finished. I read the last two or three chapters of The Kingdoms twice, not because I needed to fully understand what was happening to the world, but because I wanted to feel my feelings again. The ending is beautiful. If I say anything more, I could end up spoiling the book. If you have read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, then you’ll know what to expect from The Kingdoms. I haven’t, but now I want to.
The Kingdoms is historical speculative fiction at its finest. I fell in love with Joe and Missouri. I sympathised and empathised with their plights. My heart broke more than once for Agatha. The battle scenes are butal and history, whichever one it ends up being, never felt more vibrant and fluid. I thank NetGalley and the book’s publishers for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. I also wish to thank Natasha Pulley for writing such a beautiful and thrilling novel. I will look out for more of her work in the future.