The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
If Natasha Pulley’s latest novel, The Kingdoms (2021), were a movie script, the elevator pitch might have been “Master and Commander meets The Final Countdown” (look it up, kids). Part time-travel story, part love story (several actually), part Patrick O’Brian story, it curves and recurves through beauty and brutality (more of the latter than the former), time and space, trauma, and rescue (more of the former than the latter), as it delights, horrifies, and frustrates. I loved the first half to two-thirds, felt it went off the rails a bit for some time, then was happy to see it get back on track in time to nail the ending. Which is why I’m recommending it, despite its issues.
The book opens, appropriately enough, with a sentence about memory followed by a sense of disquiet: “Most people have trouble recalling their first memory … That was it, the first thing he remembered, but the second was something less straightforward … the slow, eerie feeling that everything was doing just what it should be, minding its own business, but that at the same time, it was all wrong.” The “he” here is mid-40s year-old Joe Tournier, who has stepped off a train in 1898 Londres (London in a world where Napoleon defeated the English) with no memory of who he is, where he’s been, or where he’s going. After a brief stint in an asylum, Joe is collected by his master (turns out he’s a slave for a little while longer until he pays off some debt) and his too-young-for-him wife.
After a few years in which he becomes free, gets a job as a welder, and has a daughter, he receives a mysterious postcard from “M,” showing a remote Scottish lighthouse (in this alternate history Scotland is still free of French domination) and asking him to “come home, if you remember.” When he travels there, he eventually ends up in 1807, where he is pressed into service against the French, who have not yet won the ongoing war. His captor is a Captain Kite, who clearly knows Joe somehow and also knows he is from the future (Joe, it turns out, is not the first wayward traveler). Kite sees Joe’s advanced technical knowledge as the only hope in an increasingly desperate war, and so refuses all entreaties by Joe to return home to his daughter.
Having set up the two base timelines, The Kingdoms moves back and forth in time, not just between those two years but advancing in time as well. There are also direct flashbacks via character memory to earlier times, before Joe jumped back to 1807, as well as flashbacks via a lengthy letter Joe is reading sporadically throughout the novel. And that’s all I’ll say about this very twisty, complicated plot.
Well, at least as far as recapping it goes. I will note that a central mystery in the story is the question of just who Joe really is. I’m not sure making this such a core question for nearly the book’s entire length is beneficial to the book as my guess is that the answer will become clear relatively quickly to most readers, and to nearly all of them before Joe himself figures it out. It also forces Pulley into some awkwardly contrived plotting whereby certain details have to be withheld from Joe (and the reader) so as not to reveal the answer too soon. For instance, Joe is several times interrupted from reading the letter detailing the past, and it just became difficult for me to buy into both the interruptions and Joe’s own passivity in not simply taking a not-too-long-a-time to just read the damn thing. This wasn’t a huge problem, but it was an always-in-the-background grating one. I also think the plotting and pace went astray in the latter third or so of the book, though I won’t detail why so as to avoid spoilers. Up to that point, the story was compelling and fast-paced.
Stylistically, the prose is often brilliantly, vividly sharp as well as strikingly beautiful/original. The naval battles are brutally vibrant, precisely detailed in all their terror and body horror. Here, for instance, is the aftermath of one such scene: “A hissing came from behind them, sailors were going over the deck with wide brooms, pushing all the pieces of people overboard and leaving red comb patterns behind — it was the brooms that hissed.” The “pieces of people” is obviously horrific, but to me what really carries the weight of this description is its mundane detail: the brooms, the swishing “hiss” we all know and recognize.
Meanwhile, domestic details are just as sharp, with lovely moments between Joe and his daughter. And an early interlude in a coastal town is just filled with gorgeous, poetic description:
The winter was coming in at running pace over the sea. It swept in from the west, and in its wake the water froze in a clear grey line … it made a sound, a creaking splintering that must have been forming frost … They were waiting so that she could run with the frost line, the summer ahead and the winter behind … The beach was glittering with frost. Whale ribcages made cloisters all across it, and on the bones perched dozens of cormorants, every single one of them dead, because they had been drying out their wings when the winter came, and now they had frozen.
The characters are complex, difficult at times to get a handle on but in the best of ways. Kite, for instance, is terrifyingly ruthless and on the one hand seems utterly lacking in emotion but on the other seems as if he is barely keeping a lid on a volcano’s worth of feeling. The same characters perform both atrocities and acts of tenderness, enact moments of surprising loyalty and surprising betrayal. Seemingly good, “civilized” people are driven to horrible, ugly acts of brutality, murder, and barbarism, either by the situations they currently find themselves in or by some past trauma that still (and probably forever) haunts their minds and steers their actions/reactions. If someone told me after reading The Kingdoms that they felt “one way” about any of the characters, I’d wonder what book it was they read. On the one hand, they’re all wonderfully (if one can use that word in the context of some of their actions) complex. On the other, I can’t say Pulley is fully successful in executing that complexity. I’d argue that a bit too much is withheld from the reader, that we have to take some of this as a given based on what we’re told; as long as the book is, I would have rathered a bit more time spent with each to fully set up/flesh out their inner selves. This, unfortunately, holds true with the love story part, which I had difficulty feeling fully real. This causes some issues with an otherwise richly emotional ending, which comes with more than a little bit of heart-breaking sacrifice, which, again, feels a little rushed through.
That said, I want to credit Pulley for diving into a far darker aspect of alternate histories. Where most such works just kind of “write off” the replaced timeline — “whoops, there goes another one …” — Pulley makes those losses achingly painful. A timeline “restored” (whatever that means in the complexity of multiple such lines) does not come without cost, though too often one wouldn’t know that. Pulley doesn’t just note this loss; she centers it. That alone, I’d say, makes The Kingdoms worthy of reading. But you don’t have to settle for only that; you also get beautiful prose, mostly strong plotting and pacing, and a rich complexity of characterization.
I thought it was a fantastic book and beautiful to read. I really enjoyed it. It deals with time travel very well. It has lots of emotional relevance. It is always interesting. And it’s very easy to read. I’m surprised the reviewer didn’t give it a higher rating.