by Natasha Pulley
Expected publication: May 25, 2021, by Bloomsbury
If you remember, come home.
A postcard with that message and a picture of a Scottish lighthouse has been waiting for Joe Tournier for nearly a century, but shortly after he arrives in London with no memory of anything except his name, it is delivered. Though possessing written English has been illegal in French-occupied England since Napoleon conquered it in 1807, Joe hangs onto the postcard as much as he clings to the flashes of memory he has of his forgotten life. When circumstances give Joe the chance to travel to the lighthouse in the picture, he takes the chance and travels north- into unexpected danger, unexpected friendship, and through time itself as he struggles to remember the past life he’s forgotten and hang onto the life he’s gained since the day he arrived in London.
English novelist Natasha Pulley has become known for her genre-bending novels that feature unusual mysteries, odd experiences with time, and unexpected relationships. In her latest novel, The Kingdoms, she continues the trend. Joe Tournier is a man out of time and memory, whose travels rip him out of the world as he’s come to know it and send him headlong into a dangerous world in a radically different time, in the company of a mysterious brother and sister who know far more about Joe’s past than they’re willing to say.
It’s a formula that works for the first half. The back half of the book, however, buckles under the weight of its own setup and the questions the plot inspires, but never answers. What happened to the rest of the ship’s crew, for example? Why was it sailing so close to the rugged Scottish coastline in the first place? Who was knocking on the other side of the lighthouse’s wall? It’s one thing to have questions about a book’s plot; it’s quite another to have such questions about it that it knocks one entirely out of the reading experience. The first kind of question is fun. The other is frustrating.
So, too, is the question of Joe’s identity. Joe arrives in London on that fateful day with no memory of his past- just the occasional flash of this or that and a propensity for math and building machines. When he ends up with two people who know about his past, neither of them is willing to say anything about it. Why? Because reasons. And while yes, those reasons become known, this revelation doesn’t occur until long after the conceit of it has gone from being suspenseful to being maddening. Is it ever a good experience when dealing with adults who simply refuse to use their words, even when another adult is pleading for the critical information they possess that will help him make sense of his upside-down world?
A collection of flashbacks brings the main story’s momentum to a face-planting halt, too, and without adding significantly to the book’s tension. Do they add to Joe’s story? In a roundabout fashion, yes. But at what cost to the story as a whole? Some readers will find the banal and occasionally romantic asides to be interesting, but will the majority of readers be entertained?
Another frustrating element is a trope that often appears in young adult fantasy, but less often in adult speculative fiction: the bad boy with the heart of gold, who does terrible things because of his tragic past but is forgiven all his sins because the heroine finds him attractive. There is another of these bad boys in The Kingdoms, only he is a full-grown man with a long history of doing terrible things, and who is forgiven for his heinous crimes because he does a few progressive things and is charismatic. How often must we forgive the charismatic male character for crimes up to and including murder, simply because he is described as having a handsome face?
Speculative fiction is a rising genre that exists somewhere in the ether between realistic fiction and science fiction/fantasy. Pulley has pulled these stories off before, most notably in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, but The Kingdoms stumbles badly in its second half, providing a story more frustrating than suspenseful, a host of questions that have no answers, major action sequences that rise into nothing, and an ending that is light on logic but heavy on sweetness and wedged into the story because it needs an ending of some kind, and a sweet ending is better than a sour one. But the whole of The Kingdoms is unsatisfying and will fade from the reader’s memory as readily as Joe’s past faded from his.
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.