Review of That Inevitable Victorian Thing

Leora Baumgarten '20

Score: ★★☆☆☆


         That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston was a bland, but tolerable read. The alternative history novel is set in a world where the British Empire never fell, and takes place in a futuristic Canada. The novel maintains some of the key Victorian elements of the past, such as class hierarchy and the royal family, and combines them with a more modern ideology and futuristic technology. The story depicts the life-changing summer experienced by Princess Victoria-Margaret, Helena Marcus, and August Callaghan. Margaret will soon begin her formal duties as crown princess, which include marrying a politically advantageous match, but she is first given one summer to travel. Margaret chooses to pose as the niece of her godparents and stay with them in Toronto. Helena lives a more common life, and anticipates a marriage proposal from her close friend, August. August, the heir to his father’s large and wealthy shipping company, struggles to deal with the frequent pirate attacks on his ships.

         Margaret meets Helena and August at the debutante ball of Elizabeth, Margaret’s “cousin.” She and Helena hit it off and become quick friends. Meanwhile, August has started to pay American pirates to protect his ships, despite it being illegal. When Elizabeth is invited to visit her fiancé, she invites Margaret along, but Margaret opts to go with Helena back to her home. During the rest of the summer, Margaret falls in love, Helena learns something shocking about herself, and August continues to hide his crimes.


My thoughts:

         I really appreciated the diversity in this alternate world. Many religions, races, and sexualities are represented and respected in this version of the British Empire. In the novel, Queen Victoria I encouraged her children to marry into the different cultures and ethnicities that composed her Empire. Victoria sets the trend for stronger ties between the monarchy and the people. In her book,  Johnston stresses how much more inclusive and modern her British Empire is than the actual one, but she fails to mention if her Empire handled its expansion differently than the real British Empire. This leads me to assume, that the native peoples of the lands conquered by Johnston’s Empire suffered just as terribly as the natives did in reality. Therefore, it frustrates me that Johnston can portray her society as idealistic without addressing the issue of colonization.

         On another note, I appreciated the thought-provoking implications of the technology in Johnston’s novel. For example, a system known colloquially as the “Computer” matches romantically compatible people based on their DNA, which raises many philosophical questions. Do genes or experience determine love? Is the “Computer” a step too far in man’s quest to learn God’s knowledge?

         Out of the three protagonists, I enjoyed Margaret’s character the most, especially her sensitivity in interactions with others. I thought that she was a nicely written future Queen, and that she displayed fitting amounts of empathy and authority. I liked Helena’s character for the most part, and I respected the difficulties Helena deals with over the course of the novel. However, I was not very pleased with the manner in which she resolved one of her problems. I really disliked August and found him self-centered. I don’t think Johnston did a great job fleshing out his character.

         However, the biggest shortcoming in the characters was the relationship between Margaret, Helena, and August. I didn’t think that their mutual friendship seemed realistic. I thought that there was not enough background provided to support the instantaneous shift from strangers to close friends.

         The writing was very confusing. The narrator constantly shifts back and forth between the thoughts and perspectives of different characters in a way that only serves to disorient the reader.

         The plot was far too slow for me. I expected intrigue and tension—the hallmarks of a good book—but got only a failed attempt at both. I believe that it is impossible to write an interesting novel that is set in a utopian world, and That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a prime example of that incompatibility.

         Ultimately, the novel had an interesting premise that was not executed well.