Tag Archives: Speculative Fiction

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

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.

Natasha Pulley (via author’s website)

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.

Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Series

I picked a bad time to read a series of books about a Europe ravaged by the after-effects of a global pandemic, a refugee crisis, terrorism, and the break-up of the EU itself. But here we are. Dave Hitchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence is the ultimate in literary What If? for our time. Allow me to take you through this quartet, and introduce you to Rudi.

Dave Hutchinson (Image: us.macmillan.com)

An Estonian, working in a restaurant in Krakow, Rudi’s exceptional talents keep him gainfully employed in an economy that’s pretty much gone to hell. One evening at the restaurant, Rudi is approached by a representative of an underground organisation called the Couriers des Bois. His nationality could be of use to them, and they need someone to move a package across the many borders across the continent. Europe has become so segmented over the years that practically any entity, be it a statelet or national park, can declare independence and have its own border control process.

In Europe in Autumn, Rudi goes from being a cook to a spy. It’s impossible to swat away John le Carre vibes here. Rudi has to learn as he goes, and although he has support from the organisation, he’s very much on his own for much of the novel. His instructor/mentor is MIA, presumed traitorous. And his friends and family become targets of whomever is behind the “Great Conspiracy”. And oh, what a conspiracy it is!

Sometime in the 19th century, a family of English cartographers, map-makers, brought into existence a parallel Europe, and somehow this Europe, populated in the main by English people, and accessible from very few places in our Europe. Yes, it’s a head-scratcher. Dave Hutchinson moves from near-future spy fiction to the realm of fantasy. And it works, because throughout the book, we see everything through Rudi’s eyes. We’re as flummoxed as he is, but there’s a job to do and people to protect, so like James Bond and George Smiley, we want to get to the bottom of this mess.

Europe at Midnight takes us to the Campus, a university nation-state that’s both within and without the Community, the parallel Europe. It’s also the site where the flu virus was manufactured, and there’s also a nucleur weapon. Rudi has very little to do in this instalment, instead we follow Jim, who works for British intelligence. A stabbing on a London bus begins the intrigue, and in a story where the chronology of events has to be worked out by the reader, it’s a captivating puzzle that when worlds finally collide, some questions are answered, but inevitably many more take their place.

Europe in Winter sees the return of Rudi. It opens with the suicide bombing of an important railway tunnel operated by the Line, a network that crosses continental Europe and is a nation state itself. Think Amtrak, but you need a passport and travel documents to board. Awareness of the Community is widespread, and diplomatic relationships are struck up between the different European universes. Characters from previous books make an appearance, and the action includes assassinations, perilous travels between worlds, and a revision of history as we know it. There’s a wonderful sequence of events at the end involving an airport that I will not spoil here. You will have to read it for yourself.

In the last (presumably, but with Dave Hitchinson you never know) of the sequence, Europe at Dawn, there is a resolution of sorts for the disparate storylines, but also gives space to introduce new and important characters. There is murder, mayhem, chases, and escapes. There is a sublime subplot about a bejewelled skull in the possession of a travelling folk group that by the end of the book, it all makes some sort of sense. But not everything gets resolved; there’s no “and they all lived happily ever after”. But I remain very much okay with that.

The above summaries do little justice to the themes and events that run throughout Fractured Europe. I need to point out that at times, the books are very funny. There’s an almost Terry Pratchett feel to them. Dave Hutchinson’s attention to detail and knowledge of world and European history permeates each page and character. The new future world of which he writes is grey and mundane, but the story is rich in atmosphere. If John le Carre were to write speculative fiction as a spy story, he could not do a better job than Dave Hutchinson. He is a writer for and of our times.