By Natasha Pulley

Bloomsbury Publishing


436pp/$28.00/November 2021

The Kingdoms
Cover by David Mann

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Joe Tournier has become unstuck in time in Natasha Pulley's novel The Kingdoms, a complex story of time travel, alternate history, and the relationships the Tournier is forced into with a wife he doesn't know and a possibly insane and masochistic sea captain. Pulley begins her story in late nineteenth century London and weaves her story between several chronological settings dating to one hundred years earlier than the novel's opening. She keeps a lot of details hidden, only revealing them slowly so the reader is as much in the dark about what is actually happening as Joe Tournier is.

The novel begins with Tournier arriving in London on a train, with no recollection of who he is, where he has been, or where he is going. A helpful stranger on the platform at Gare du Roi helps orient him and he finds himself, temporarily, in a hospital. Diagnosed with epilepsy that causes amnesia, Tournier and the reader are both allowed to discover this alternative London in which the French have conquered England, together. Tournier's education includes the discovery that he is a slave, married to his brother's widow, and is a knowledgeable engineer. These discoveries, along with a tattered and mysterious postcard featuring the Eilean Mor lighthouse, eventually leads him to abandon his wife and daughter to take a posting at the isolated lighthouse and try to determine what happened to the lighthouse keepers who had gone missing.

The mystery of the lighthouse has ties to more than a century earlier when the English and French were fighting the Napoleonic Wars and the outcome of the world hung in the balance. With a focus on Missouri Kite, a British sea captain whose ship is crewed by a mixture of sailors, women, and children, Pulley not only offers a look at a war that went differently, but also explores the mechanics of time travel and the potential for disrupting timelines. Although the heart of the book is the mysterious relationship between Kite, his sister Agatha Castlereigh, and Jem, Agatha's husband from a different time. She grafts her story onto a detailed and realistic look at life aboard sailing ships during the early nineteenth century, providing the reader with a sense of verisimilitude.

While many authors who focus on the mechanics of time travel and paradoxes have a tendency to simplify cause and effect, Pulley drills down into the possibilities, creating a world in which the present (whenever it is) is simply what it is, without knowledge of the specific decisions that caused it to differ from other potential presents. Furthermore, as long as there is the potential for time travel, no present can be truly considered set. Living in the late nineteenth century, Tournier could find himself married to his brother's widow one moment and the next he, his brother, and his brother's wife could be having dinner, never suspecting or remembering that there was a timeline in which Tournier's brother had died.

The Kingdoms is a complex book and Pulley attempts to present mysteries throughout and only gradually provide explanations for what is happening, who people are, and what their relationships are. At times these revelations seem to be a little too leisurely in nature. Mostly written from Tournier's point of view Pulley sets him up as an unreliable narrator, not because he is attempting to be deceitful, but rather because his epilepsy and amnesia mean that he can't be trusted to understand the situations he finds himself in nor the motivations for the actions taken by those who are around him. Combined with the possibility of Pulley's world changing in an instant means The Kingdoms doesn't tell a story that, like Joe Tournier, in unstuck in time.

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