Title: The Kingdoms
Author: Natasha Pulley
Publication date: May 25, 2021
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
One Sentence Summary: When Joe receives a mysterious postcard featuring a lighthouse after just as mysteriously losing his memory, it leads him on a journey into the past and attempts to change the future.
The Kingdoms is described as being genre bending with an alternate history and a battle between the French and the English. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, but I can’t resist something called genre bending. I expected an interesting tumble through time and a dizzying adventure. Indeed, the back and forth in time kept me confused throughout the novel, but I think my brain pieced it together by the end, and I ended up falling in love with an unexpected love story.
The Kingdoms opens with Joe Tournier stepping off a train into a London that’s become a colony of France. He speaks French and English, but speaking English is illegal, and, beyond that and his name, he doesn’t remember much. A kind man takes him to a hospital, where it’s determined he has epilepsy and that has caused him to lose his memory. Eventually, he is reunited with his young wife and his master, because, in this alternate London, slavery happens and Joe and his wife are owned by a kind older man who seems to love Joe very much.
Joe struggles with his memory loss, but the arrival of a mysterious postcard signed “M” with a picture of the Eilean Mor lighthouse sparks his journey into recovering his memory. Eventually freed, but still residing with his former master, Joe and his wife have an adorable little girl Joe becomes attached to. He also, led by the postcard, ends up working for the very man who supplied the machinery for the lighthouse on the postcard and ends up being sent to repair it.
Joe is reluctant to leave his daughter, but he’s pulled by who the mysterious M is and believes going to the lighthouse will help him discover what’s going on. It ends up leading him into the past, giving him the opportunity to set the timeline right, to reunite him with M, but it also comes at a terrible price Joe might not be willing to pay.
As a time travel novel, The Kingdoms actually leaves a lot left wanting. There were so many things about how it worked that just aren’t explained. None of the characters really seemed to know how it happened either; they just knew it happened if you traveled through the wrong place. I’m still really fuzzy on how it worked, on how some of the things that happened were actually possible. While the beginning of Joe’s adventures at the lighthouse were eerie and kept me hooked, the rest of the book never really addressed it. Actually, quite a lot never seemed to really be answered.
But I think the focus was split into two things: the history and the love story. Most of the story was poured into exploring the past, both the one Joe finds himself in and the one that came years before. There are a lot of different times to keep track off. The story goes back and forth at will to explore two distinct sets of characters and their stories. Somehow, they meld together, but my brain just couldn’t wrap itself around the math required to check if it all actually worked out. I did find the alternate histories presented very interesting and couldn’t help wondering how it would fix itself. But it was also confusing, especially since I’m not well versed in European history so had a harder time couching the story into the real historical timeline. Needless to say, I enjoyed it, but it felt like a wild ride I still don’t fully understand.
So, I did like the time traveling and the alternate histories, but the unexpected love story stole my heart. The Kingdoms leaves a lot unexplained and probably too many loose threads. It was frustrating, unless I switched my perspective and looked at this book has a love story instead of a time travel and alternate history novel. The romance really snuck up on me, but, looking back, it was there from the very start. It ended up being quite a lovely love story and just managed to carry the weight of the rest of the story.
The romance was hard to see at first because I found the characters and their secrets and backgrounds fascinating and the alternate histories confusing. But I really did enjoy the characters. There’s Joe who’s just desperate for a life that’s all his own. Because of his time traveling, he felt a little like he was bouncing all over the place and I truly struggled with pining him down. But Kite felt like a much calmer foil to him, though I often thought he was a bit crazy. He kept coming off to me as a quiet man and rather even keel. He also seemed a bit removed from everything, which was actually a little disconcerting. Outside of these two, though, while the supporting cast was fascinating and played their roles to perfection, most did end up feeling a little flat. They played their roles, but had nothing else to them. As a matter of fact, most of them felt, more or less, blase on just about everything.
As a time travel and alternate history novel, The Kingdoms does leave a lot wanting. I felt like I ought to focus more to really understand what was going on, but, in the end, I didn’t feel I really should. There were too many unanswered questions and too many loose threads. However, as a love story, I felt it really did deliver. It was complex because of the back and forth in time and Joe’s changing characterization, but it was much more straightforward than the rest of the story.
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Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.