“Dearest Joe. Come home if you remember. –M”
Author Natasha Pulley’s perhaps most prevalent theme when you consider her list of works as a whole is the concept of time – whether it’s knowing the future, seeing the past unfurl before your eyes in the forms of ghosts, or in the case of her new novel The Kingdoms, seeing the web of timelines, present, future, and potential, unravel and reshape before your very eyes as a consequence of your actions.
Pulley comes to The Kingdoms fresh from the success of her three previous novels – the best known of these are the duology of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and its sequel The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, a pair of carefully-crafted novels about an aspiring composer-turned-government-clerk who finds his path entwined with that of a Japanese samurai lord with a propensity for watch-building. These novels are delicate and considerate in their construction, with timelines and characters dovetailing pleasingly to create stories about grief and loss and hope and the pain of knowing. Fortunately, The Kingdoms more than continues in this vein.
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The premise is teasingly good – a man named Joe awakens, fresh off a train, in an alternate version of London where the Battle of Waterloo was won by the French and the British Empire is naught but a memory for its citizens (London becomes Londres, the train station is Londres Gare du Roi, etcetera).The amnesiac Joe is soon picked up by his family, but is sent a postcard from an anonymous source, imploring him to return home, hailing from a mysterious lighthouse on a remote island on the Scottish coast.. The real kicker? The postcard was sent ninety-three years prior.
This juicy opening hook allows Pulley’s talents of slowly teasing out a mystery to flourish as Joe goes to investigate the postcard and the origins of the lighthouse, delving through timelines and meeting shadowy, enigmatic characters such as Kite, the captain of a ship known as the Agamemnon, and its motley crew, and Agatha, a woman driven to exact vengeance and justice on her own terms. To describe the players in the novel further would simultaneously spoil the story and underplay Pulley’s knack for creating ciphers who are equal parts relatable and unlikable, cruel and kind in equal measure, and this reviewer is eager for readers to explore themselves first-hand as the novel reveals them, through alternate perspectives and fragments of correspondence and through Joe’s own wide-eyed point of view.
Amidst the characters, we find a thrilling, at-seas plot that is riddled with dizzying action set-pieces that isn’t afraid to show the real toll of war upon human lives – sympathetic characters are brutally killed off, important characters are wiped off the chessboard altogether, and malignant presences rise to further power and prominence – all while Joe attempts to discover the truth about his missing memory, who he was before he awoke in Londres, and the series of truths at the very heart of The Kingdoms‘ elaborate game.
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On occasion, The Kingdoms seems ready to sink under the weight of its own complex, labyrinthine plot (if post-release, Pulley is tempted to create a visual timeline, this reviewer would be among the first to check his own understanding), but it manages to stick the landing, unafraid to paint with shades of sadness and loss, to create satisfying emotional arcs and payoffs for Joe and Kite, the novel’s ostensible leads and the people they love.
Ultimately, The Kingdoms succeeds on a number of levels – it is an entertaining yarn, a beautiful character study replete with a human streak and beating heart, a pulse-pounding action-adventure, and a twisty-turny science-fiction thriller about the power of our choices and of the consequences that those same choices must bring. One of the best novels of 2021 and one well-worthy of revisiting again and again, The Kingdoms solidifies Pulley’s presence of one of the UK’s best young writers and a major voice to look out for.
The Kingdoms is out on 27th May from Bloomsbury Publishing.