That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston
Published October 3, 2017
That Inevitable Victorian Thing is based on one of the best alternate history concepts I’ve ever ever seen. The young Princess Victoria grows up, as in our world, under the Kensington System, a strict set of rules designed to render her dependent on her mother, and her mother’s attendant, for everything. She could not even walk down a flight of stairs in her own home without holding the hand of an adult guardian. The system backfires spectacularly and, upon becoming Queen, Victoria fiercely asserts her independence, pushing parliament to consider progressive ideas. In the world of That Inevitable Victorian Thing, she pushed for her eldest child, a daughter, to become her heir, not her eldest son, and sought out a stronger Empire by marrying her children and grandchildren not to their cousins in the royal houses of Europe, but farther afield in Hong Kong and elsewhere across the world. This creates a present-day Empire that combines traditions, religions, and genetics from across the world.
The story itself focuses on three protagonists, each with their own secrets. The Princess Victoria-Margaret, posing as the common Margaret Sandwich while abroad, is beginning a summer of freedom in Canada, before she seeks a genetically appropriate match and takes on duties as heir to the throne. In disguise, she makes friends with August Callaghan, heir to a lumber shipping firm that has been besieged by American pirates, and his longtime friend and likely match, Helena Marcus, the daughter of prominent geneticists. Although I liked all of the characters, I found August underdeveloped in comparison to the female characters, and wish we had seen more of his perspective. Pragmatic, but spirited Helena, and the reserved but game-for-anything Margaret are both very likable though and I loved watching their friendship develop.
As a proud Torontonian, I loved seeing my city as a major setting for this book. Places like Union Station, The Royal York, and the Princess of Wales Theatre are all locales that I pass frequently and it gave me a tiny thrill to see their names in print. My family have never been cottage people, so Northern Ontario was less familiar, but obviously rendered with love by the author.
The blending of the old and the new is a welcome bit of world building. The largely teenage cast of characters prepare for the ‘season’ of social events, beginning with their debut into society. They fuss about dresses that include crinolines and corsets, and about knowing the steps to dances (amusingly including “The Log Driver’s Waltz“). Yet at the end of their debut, they receive their personal chip to the genetic internet, or ‘g-net’, which contains their genetic code and the ability to search for and chat with genetic matches in a sort of high-tech dating portal that determines the health of any potential offspring. Characters also compose letters to family members, but these are sent via tablets.
Speaking in vague terms to avoid spoilers, the representation in this book is also fantastic. In this world’s Empire, the Royal Family is ethnically diverse, with both Princess Margaret and her mother, Queen Victoria-Elizabeth, exhibiting brown skin, natural hair, and epicanthal folds. Similarly, August is from an Irish-Hong Kong Chinese background. Passing mentions to Sikh men in turbans and Muslim hijabi during the balls are also made. That Inevitable Victorian Thing treats diversity as a strength that keeps the Empire healthy, and there is seemingly no discrimination based on physical traits. The book also contains queer characters, and makes mention of the fact that one member of the Royal Family (an aunt, not in the direct line of succession), with the full blessing of the church, marries a woman.
It sounds fantastic, right? But the book falls flat in the world building and plot departments. On the surface the world building is great, this unique multicultural world of technology and Victorian-era tradition, but there’s little in the way of depth here. I wanted to know so much more about how the eldest child instead of just the eldest son inheriting changes things. I wanted to know more about this genetic search for matches all across the globe, and most of all I wanted some deeper insight on the acceptance of LGBT couples, couples who don’t want to have children, and asexuals, in a world where the entire matchmaking system is based on the prospective health of offspring.
The plot is also very thin. There’s the opportunity for conflict, with each character holding secrets that should, when they come to a head, result in some fireworks, but dramatic tension isn’t maintained throughout. It’s almost as if the characters forget they have these problems when convenient, and then pick their woes back up again when needed to drive the story. That Inevitable Victorian Thing definitely reads on the younger end of YA, which isn’t something that appeals to me personally. POVs change constantly, sometimes within a few pages, so it feels like we don’t delve too deeply into any one character’s thoughts.
My biggest disappointment though was the ending. Everything wraps up a little too quickly and tidily, resulting in an ending that’s neatly tied off with a bow. I get the impression that this is intended to be a happy ending, but it reads as bittersweet at best and at worst as entering into a situation that cannot possibly work or be happy for all parties involved in the long-term.
I still think a lot of people will be absolutely over the moon for this book, and I recommend it as a very original work of YA fantasy based on a unique concept, but personally it didn’t hit all the right notes for me.