Monday, September 5, 2011

The Kingdom of Ohio, by Matthew Flaming

The Kingdom of Ohio, by Matthew Flaming.  Penguin, 2009.  328 pp.  978-0-425-23694-9.

... in which the princess of Ohio and a young construction worker in 1901 New York City shape history and find themselves caught up in a struggle between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

This is a difficult book to summarize or categorize.  The main setting is 1901 New York City, though it may or may not be the same 1901 NYC from our timeline.  The story is also set in Los Angeles, probably in the 1990s, where the narrator lives. Peter Force is a young man who has moved from the wilds of northern Idaho (Kellogg, ID, if you must know) to NYC to be a construction worker on the new underground railroad system.  One evening Peter encounters a distressed young woman, who claims to be Cheri-Anne Toledo, the daughter of the king of Ohio.  She claims to have survived the assassination of her family, and was suddenly transported through space and time from 1894 Toledo to 1901 New York.  Claiming to be a student of famed inventor Nikola Tesla, Cheri-Anne attributes her travel to her work on a teleportation device.  However, after going to visit Tesla, she finds that he has no idea who she is, suggesting that not only did she travel through space and time, but that she also traveled between parallel universes.  Peter and Cheri-Anne find themselves caught between Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Edison's financier J.P. Morgan, all of whom are using the subway construction project to search for something hidden below the ground.  The outcome of their struggle could change all of history and time.

The plot of this book is slow.  It's definitely not for someone who likes an action-packed, fast-paced thriller.  A great deal of the novel is taken up by dialogue, or internal musings by the characters.  It's really the setting and the premise of the book that makes it interesting.  One of the most important things to consider about this book is that it is an alternate history novel, so a great deal of the historical facts presented in the book are actually false (despite the author's convincing historical "footnotes").  I'm not actually sure how many different versions of history are presented in the novel... it's never explicitly clear whether any of the plot threads are set in a real part of history.  From hints given throughout the novel, I am inclined to guess that there are at least two separate parallel universes, with neither of them being set in "real" history.  The uncertainty of the setting, and the characters' own self-doubt about their own sanity and recollection, makes the nature of history and memory the primary theme of the novel.  Flaming's writing style is engaging and thought-provoking, which is helpful since the plot itself doesn't necessarily always pull the reader in.

It's hard to pin down this book's genre.  Other reviews have dubbed it a steam punk, though I would disagree with that classification.  It's not really focused on Victorian culture, and there isn't really any anachronistic technology, and the technology that does exist is not steam-powered, but is electric (Edison and Tesla, natch).  It certainly has some elements of science fiction, and maybe some hints of fantasy at the very end, but I would say that if you exclude the alternate-history part, this book is first and foremost a meditation on the lines between memory and history, and secondly a romance between Peter and Cheri-Anne, with Tesla, Edison and Morgan as part of the backdrop to their story.

In terms of characterization, this isn't a character-driven plot.  Peter is probably the most fleshed-out character, probably because he's the one telling the story.  Peter's fairly short acquaintance with Cheri-Anne means that we don't really get much of her backstory.  Because the story is told as Peter is remembering it many decades later, Cheri-Anne seems to be described in ideals, and therefore comes across as being a little flat and boring to the reader.  Tesla, Edison and Morgan are all interesting and intriguing, but none of them gets enough page time to become fully fleshed out.  It probably also doesn't help that all three are historically significant, so just seeing their names on the page gives them a sort of larger-than-life feeling.  I am not sure that characters were necessarily meant to be the primary focus of the book.  About halfway through the book, I noticed that pages would go by before anyone was referred to by name.  For the most part, the entire story of Peter and Cheri-Anne is told only using "he" and "she".  Flaming really only names people when there are multiple men in a scene and using "he" would be unclear.  Aside from Cheri-Anne, there are no other female characters who appear for more than a page or so.  I actually had to go hunting through the book for her name, because when I started this review I couldn't remember how to spell it.

My one complaint is that towards the end of the book, we're presented with something of a deus ex machina.  Something important is presented, making a really random connection to a completely different part of history, with basically no warning.  This is where the very mild hints of fantasy come in, though no other part of the book had hinted at fantasy.  The ending is also very open-ended, which isn't really my thing, but in this case it sort of works.  Because I was a little baffled by the sudden appearance of this mystery thing, I might have preferred a more concrete ending, but I can see why Flaming chose to end it this way instead.

In short, this is a book that will appeal to a very specific audience.  I think that either you'll really enjoy it, as I did, or you'll be bored out of your skull.  If you enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, then I think this book would be right up your alley.

5/5 stars

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