Joe Tournier has a bad case of amnesia. His first memory is of stepping off a train in the nineteenth-century French colony of England. The only clue Joe has about his identity is a century-old postcard of a Scottish lighthouse that arrives in London the same month he does. Written in illegal English-instead of French-the postcard is signed only with the letter “M,” but Joe is certain whoever wrote it knows him far better than he currently knows himself, and he’s determined to find the writer. The search for M, though, will drive Joe from French-ruled London to rebel-owned Scotland and finally onto the battle ships of a lost empire’s Royal Navy. In the process, Joe will remake history, and himself.
Natasha Pulley has a type: tender, lonely characters who find themselves (often literally) caught of out place and time. Sometimes her books have worked for me, sometimes they haven’t, but: The Kingdoms really, really did. This is, in my opinion, Pulley’s best book yet.
It’s hard to explain The Kingdoms without spoilers, so suffice it to say that the blurb tells you most of what you need to know going in, except one thing: I love Napoleanic War stuff, and this is Napoleanic War fiction (though not always the version we know from history), which was an added bonus and would have prompted me to pick up this book even faster had I known. I should also note that this is a real genre-bender; it’s obviously science-fiction/alternate history, but we also get a taste of the gothic when Joe spends some time at an eerie lighthouse in the middle of a wild and stormy sea, and some sections read like straight up historical fiction with no shenanigans in sight. The time travel element is confusing in the beginning, but is ultimately well explained throughout the book, and while it’s clear early on who Joe Tournier really is and why he’s found himself stuck in this time loop, watching him figure it out for himself is a rewarding journey in its own right.
The best thing about this book is the characters. Like I said, Pulley has a type, but it’s hard not to root for Joe and Kite, who are both an enigmatic mix of hopeful and hopeless, both so desperate to love and be loved in return, and who are very clearly moulded for better or for worse by all the weird and wonderful things happening around them. Joe in particular remains a very strong sense of self despite the amnesia and lack of certainty about his true identity, which made his story all the more heartbreaking at points.
The prose, too, is excellent: incredibly atmospheric, but with the occasional pithy aside where it’s impossible to do anything but grin. Pulley always does a fantastic job at describing the non-things: the long silences, the words that her characters don’t speak, and this book is no exception.
I do have a few small quibbles about the endings for some side characters which weren’t as satisfying as I would have liked, and I would have appreciated a little more reflection on some of the love interest’s actions during the book, but otherwise I was so incredibly engrossed in this story from start to finish. Now, if Pulley would like to drop a few hints about her other (!) book coming out this year, that would be great.
Note: I received an ARC from Bloomsbury. The Kingdoms will be released on 25 May 2021.