The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

The elevator pitch is essentially Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander meets Diana Wynne Jones’ The Time Of The Ghost, with naval battles galore (any Dianas who write about those? I’d be awfully pleased to know it.) Ofc, The Kingdoms isn’t quite so rapey as Outlander (thank God) nor as suspenseful as TToTG but is a thoughtful look at time travel and lost identity and fighting for a future you can live with.

Joe Tournier steps off a train in turn of the 20th-century London and has no idea who he is or where he’s from. A kindly stranger brings him to a physician, who diagnoses Joe as suffering from an uncommon epileptic affliction which causes sufferers to have such intense and prolonged bouts of deja vu that they’re convinced something is amiss with reality. After several days in the Salpetriere asylum, he is claimed by his grateful French owner, who is eager to bring the slave he raised from a young age back home, there to be reunited with Alice, Joe’s resentful Jamaican bride. Alice had intended to wed Joe’s brother Toby, who died before the formalities could be completed. But since the marriage license was already paid for, and since an unwed Alice would have been stuck in limbo as a slave between households, she married Joe instead, to neither’s liking. Joe has memories of someone named Madeline, and is certain he needs to find a way back to her, but how? A mysterious postcard signed M and stamped almost a century earlier asks him to come home if he remembers, and shows a picture of the Eilean Mor lighthouse far in the inaccessible north.

Years pass and Joe thinks he’s acclimatized to this strange world without Madeline. He’s earned his freedom and become an engineer. He and Alice even have a daughter named Lily, who means the entire world to him. But when given the opportunity to visit the Eilean Mor lighthouse after its keepers disappear and the light fails, he cannot resist the chance to investigate, even if it means running a gauntlet of hostile rebels still loyal to English ideals. The repair job itself is easy but the lighthouse feels like it’s outside of time, almost haunted. And that’s even before Joe rescues a mysterious man from the sea, launching them both into a desperate fight for the future. The question is, which future?

I really liked how Natasha Pulley drew from British legend and history to construct her tale of changing timelines. The amount of care and research is obvious in the depiction of a Napoleonic England where Admiral Nelson lost at Trafalgar, both in the immediate aftermath of the defeat as well as a century later. I greatly appreciated the diversity on display (even if a small part of me wonders whether Jem was actually gentry or just really good at pretending) and loved all the sailing. But overall, I felt that there was a strange unevenness in tone when dealing with characters, particularly Kite and Agatha. It’s hard to root for people who make themselves disagreeable on purpose, and while I get that Kite in particular always felt left out in the cold, self-pity does not sympathy elicit. I’m also still confused as to whether Fred was actually murdered, because if he was, it makes No Damn Sense why. The tonal unevenness extends as well to the mystery of who Joe really is: it was intriguing in the beginning, but by the time he confronted Herault, I didn’t really care because it honestly did not feel like it mattered to the story at all.

So this was a weird one for me because it had so many elements that I love, but I did not overall love this book. I think that better shaping and pacing would have helped a lot with the tone issues, as TK seems to abandon interest in being a mystery in favor of being a romance about three quarters of the way through. Porque no los dos, Ms Pulley? It’s definitely an interesting premise tho, and the historical/speculative/naval stuff is aces.

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley was published May 25 2021 by Bloomsbury and is available from all good booksellers, including

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