Title: That Inevitable Victorian Thing
Author: E.K. Johnston
Genre: Alternate History
Trigger Warnings: Amputation, privacy invasion, f/f sex (implied)
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.
I have mixed feelings about this book, but they’re good mixed feelings. Sort of. So this review is a little bit out of order because the setting is hugely important in my thoughts on the book and the characters, not so much.
First off, this book is set in near future Canada, but I categorized it as alternate history because it’s a near future where Britain didn’t lose its power and influence and also made a lot better choices regarding human rights, less colonialism, etc. It was almost utopian. There were things I liked about it (like racism not being a thing and healthcare being free), and there were things I didn’t like about it (like the way it felt a bit like an erasure of all the wrongs Britain has done, and the computer-based “genetic matches” to promote marrying someone who you would produce better children with smacked a bit of eugenics). I definitely enjoyed reading about it, but I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Uh, plot. Princess Victoria-Margaret takes an undercover vacation to Canada, makes some friends, and falls in love. The author’s note at the end of the book called the book “a very small story in a very big world,” and I like that description. It’s a small story of a girl meeting new friends and falling in love with one of them, but it has enough turns and surprises that it doesn’t feel plotless. The worldbuilding overshadows it, but the plot is definitely there and definitely strong if you like character-oriented stories. Plus, there’s a happy ending for everybody!
On that note, let’s talk about characters. The characters were all enjoyable to read about – I loved them all and wanted all of them to get a happy ending – but thinking about it, they weren’t really developed in the traditional sense. This is very much a slice-of-life story, and there isn’t really much of a need to learn much about these characters’ pasts or delve into their deepest fears or anything like that. I loved all of the people on the pages (literally all of them, there’s no “bad guy” or even a rival to hate) and I was happy to spend 300 pages with them, but I couldn’t really tell you much about them.
Really, the only thing I didn’t really like was the romance. And not because I didn’t like the romance itself – the concept was great, the characters were great together, and I’m super happy it happened. But it was just poorly done. The characters who fall in love feel little flutters when they look at each other (starting halfway through the book), they’re confused why their hearts beat faster when they accidentally touch … and then they’re making out on the couch. It came out of nowhere with hardly any buildup. And I just think it could have been done so much better.
And, because the diversity is so good, I have to mention it: Victoria-Margaret is a mixed-race person of color with African-textured hair, one of the characters is intersex, and there’s also polyamory.
That Inevitable Victorian Thing takes a small, slice-of-life story and mixes it with rich world-building to form a complex, multi-layered story that feels a lot bigger than it actually is. It’s not precisely lighthearted but definitely very wholesome. Despite my mixed feelings about some elements, it was an enjoyable book and I’m glad I read it.