That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston
Published by: Dutton Books
Release Date: October 3, 2017
Genre: YA Science-Fiction/Alternate History
Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history two centuries earlier. The imperial practice of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage like her mother before her, but before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer incognito in a far corner of empire. In Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir apparent to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an unusual bond and maybe a one in a million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process —just like the first Queen Victoria.
I really wanted to love this book. The premise sounds great–alternate history with Queen Victoria, POC royal family, Toronto setting, Canadian pride, LGBT representation, and sci-fi that isn’t totally bleak and depressing. It just sounds so good! So I was pretty disappointed at how lackluster it all was. Don’t get me wrong–there were some great aspects and the above things I mentioned are all there. That’s why it gets the 2.5 stars, why I didn’t DNF it, and why I want it to succeed even despite all the things I didn’t like. One of the characters is intersex, for example. I have never ever seen that in any medium and it was awesome to see it here.
The alternate history stuff was also super interesting! Essentially, the idea is that That Inevitable Victorian Thing is what the near-future would look like if Queen Victoria had decided to marry her children into families that weren’t European (Hong Kong Chinese, for example) and if America hadn’t succeeded as a country. The world looks very different than it does IRL, with a lot of Victorian customs remaining (minus the racism/sexism/etc) and with the British Commonwealth as the only major superpower in the world. Plus, the little nods to historical events and figures were really fun–especially the little Wikipedia articles sprinkled throughout that told us exactly how this world differed from ours. It was a good way to world-build without having pages of world building or too many characters having detailed discussions of politics and history. But alas, this was not enough to save the book.
The first thing that really bothered me was the writing. At first, I really enjoyed that it seemed to be very Jane Austen-like, but that opinion changed not long after. The book is told in omniscient 3rd person, meaning it switches the 3rd-person perspective from character to character. So when we are seeing the perspective of one character, we have to stick with that character. But the writing didn’t seem to stick with one person even in the same paragraph. One moment we were in Margaret’s head, and the next we were in her godfather’s, before getting thrown back into Margaret again. It threw me off often enough that I was taken out of the story and had to actively think about whose perspective I was seeing. If this had been written from an all-knowing narrator’s POV, then that would have been okay. But unfortunately, it wasn’t. And this happened again and again to the point that I had to work to try and figure out whose perspective I was reading from at all times. It was very frustrating. This is basic writing stuff that I usually can’t deal with even in fanfiction.
I also had no emotional connection to any of the characters. I really wanted to love them, but I just didn’t. I felt no suspense or sense of danger when Margaret’s identity as the Crown Princess was in jeopardy, or when August worried about his pirate dealings, or even when we find out about Helena. I should have felt something with all of these occurrences and I felt nothing. I did not care at all. Everything felt like it didn’t matter very much, especially August’s plot line which I don’t think was handled very well at all.
In a similar vein, I didn’t quite feel anything for any of the relationships between the characters either. The only one that I enjoyed most was Helena and Margaret, but all the others felt like I was told they were happening but not shown it. I was always told that Helena and August liked each other a lot and were great friends since they were kids, but I didn’t really notice any feeling between them in any tangible manner. And Lizzie and Henry’s chats thrown in were kind of cute but we were also told all of the time that they talked every day and became great friends when I didn’t see that at all since we only got tiny snippets of conversation. I kind of understand why after finishing the book, but it just didn’t do it for me.
Also, the whole first half (with the parties and debut events) had no goal, no conflicts, no plot, even. There were no stakes either–even Margaret’s identity was never in jeopardy and that would have made things so much more interesting. We barely even saw the events themselves. I was honestly just bored through the whole first half, and the only thing that kept me going was the setting.
It also kind of sucked that it had so little discussion about First Nations people in Canada. It mentions them in passing, but it would have been nice to have seen a main character, especially when the book takes place entirely in Toronto and Muskoka. Also (and maybe it was just me), but the idealistic way that this book shows the world made me feel a little odd. For one, it kind of just erases most of the terrible history between Western Europe and pretty much all non-white people, which I suppose is kind of the point but it gave me a weird feeling. Maybe if E.K. Johnston was a POC I’d feel less strange about it. I don’t know, it just bugged me a bit and I can’t exactly pinpoint why so if anyone has a better way to say this please enlighten me.
So yeah. Lackluster is probably the best way to describe this book. I felt pretty much nothing about anything in this novel, which was pretty disappointing. Maybe I was expecting too much, but I really wanted it to be great and judging by what Goodreads has to say, others did too. Maybe it could have benefited from more editing and a later release date, but it’s really hard to say.
Have you read this? What did you think?
Let me know!