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The Kingdoms


The Kingdoms

Making time travel work in fiction, while not quite as improbable as it seems scientifically, is notoriously tricky to accomplish. In her speculative novel, THE KINGDOMS, Natasha Pulley successfully tackles time travel with both humor and fine detail. In it, we meet Joe Tournier, who steps off a train in Londres in 1898 with no memory of where he was coming from, where he is going, or even who he is. In piecing together his identity and his past, he chases the dim memory of a lost wife, moves back and forth through a time-thinned portal, tries to save the daughter he remembers, goes from slave to pirate, is caught up in political violence and war, and falls in love --- again.

Londres is London defeated and occupied by France. Joe is told that his amnesia, though an extreme and lingering case, is not unusual. After brief stints at two mental institutions, he is brought to what he is told is his home --- a house with the kind M. Saint-Marie and his wife, Alice. Joe works his way out of slavery and has a daughter; while his memories don’t quite return, he does settle into the life in which he finds himself.

"At heart a love story, a sweeping and strange romance, [THE KINGDOMS] is also a grand adventure and a writerly feat of achievement."

That is, until a mysterious letter, signed only “M” and somehow dated 1805, asks him to come home. Joe sets off to find M, who he believes is the barely remembered Madeline, perhaps his wife. His quest takes him back and forth through time, but as other time-traveling characters have shown, that movement cannot be done without altering so much of what Joe hopes to preserve. With every decision, he worries that he is losing his daughter even as he is moving closer to a lost life and finding his true self.

Complicating Joe’s attempts to uncover important truths and protect his daughter is the ongoing war between England and France, and a surly and compelling man named Missouri Kite. At least some of Joe’s time travel seems related to, or impacted by, the war as he appears to have had a connection to a ship called The Kingdom, whose crew was captured to report back to the past about the outcomes of battles and the technologies of the future. Was Joe part of that crew? Was Madeline? How are those aboard The Kingdom connected to those on the Agamemnon, led by the scarred and frightening Missouri Kite? And what happened to Joe at the lighthouse of Eilean Mòr?

Pulley’s story moves across a conflicted and tumultuous century, and Joe is at once swept up in the drama and the driver of some of it. Time folds back on itself, creating or exposing new realities, various Joes with lives based on different choices and circumstances. His attempts to preserve one life leads to many others throughout the novel. There are some constants --- the presence of Missouri Kite, the Eilean Mòr lighthouse, the image of a man waiting on a beach --- but readers must scramble, along with Joe, to make sense of it all.

While there are myriad possibilities for characters in this type of story, Pulley does a good job controlling her narrative and limiting Joe’s story to some extent. The book focuses on just a few threads of a vast tapestry of worlds in which Joe believes he is seeking one thing while rushing towards something just as true but even more powerful.

THE KINGDOMS is not exactly an easy read --- keeping track of its various strands is challenging at times --- but it is an enjoyable one with memorable, complex characters and an interesting way of playing with perspective. Exploring time, chance, identity, love of all manners, loss and destiny, this is a novel in which to immerse yourself. At heart a love story, a sweeping and strange romance, it is also a grand adventure and a writerly feat of achievement.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on June 4, 2021

The Kingdoms
by Natasha Pulley