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It is 1898 and London – now renamed Londres – is ruled by the French. In this version of history Britain lost the Napoleonic Wars: the aristocracy has been abolished, but slavery has not. Now there is a wave of strange and unexplained amnesia. One of the amnesiacs is Joe Tournier, a slave who happens to have a genius for engineering.
With no memory of his past Joe is always searching for the missing element of his life, guided only by flashes of the past: a man who waits and a woman called Madeline. When he receives a mysterious postcard sent a hundred years earlier he finds himself drawn to a remote Scottish lighthouse, and a sequence of unpredictable but bizarrely logical adventures.
The Kingdoms is a sort of mixture of alternate history, time travel and steampunk. As we move backwards and forward in time we see different possibilities: societies that have been shaped in different ways, and lives that could have been lived but were not.
Joe is diagnosed with paramnesia, “the blurring of something imaginary and something real… the sense you’ve seen something new before”. But in this case his hallucinations may be grounded in reality, a manifestation of a different life he could have lived.
I have enjoyed all of Natasha Pulley’s novels, but I think I liked this one the best. I could empathise with the characters (even in their occasionally brutal moments) and the story was full of ambiguity.
It posed some intriguing questions. What would Britain have been like if it had lost at Trafalgar and Waterloo? Better or worse, or just different? How far can brutality be justified in the pursuit of a greater good? And, of all the paths our lives could have taken, is one more “real” than the others? Or can different versions exist concurrently? A great read and thoroughly recommended.
The Kingdoms, Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury, 2021, 9781526623119Follow me on social media: