I don’t read all that much alternative history, so it took a bit of digging through my to read list in order to find something to read for Read Harder’s Task 2. But, sure enough I had one and while I let it sit to very late (although not the latest on my to read list for this year’s challenges) it was an enjoyable, if slightly unexpected, read.
For plot summary purposes I’m going to borrow from Goodreads, since I’m not sure I could do it more succinctly:
“Set in a near-future world where the British Empire was preserved, not by the cost of blood and theft but by effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a novel of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world. 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.”
For the first 65 pages of this one confused as to some of the mechanics of Johnston’s story. The chapters are broken up with interstitial tidbits that after that mark do a great job expanding the universe of the story and layering in details that help build the narrative but up to that point are hinting at a hidden plot point but instead confuses matters. Once Johnston gets out of her own way there (really, if she had saved the text message chats for slightly later or broken them up with the more world building stuff it would have been better) things progress well. The next 200 pages go great, characters are well developed, the world continues to solidify, and Johnston very deliberately plots out an incredibly diverse and inclusive world. And then… the final 60 or so pages wrap up too quickly. It’s a bit of a spoiler to discuss what about the ending didn’t work for me so if you keep reading it’s on you…
… I am on board with the polyamorous relationship as the solution to these characters wants and responsibilities. What I wanted to hit my head against the table about was the combined choice of not laying in more track for August’s attraction to Margaret or giving August more hesitation about the proposal being made to him by Helena and Margaret. We see on page why this marriage and court position work for the women, and why they would concoct it, but we aren’t given enough of August’s inner choice about becoming the prince consort.
With all that I’m still rounding this up to four stars, because what Johnston gets right, she gets very right. I would love more books in this universe, and I’m even more interested in her other works than I was before.