Life takes you by surprise with how fast things happen. In the past few weeks, I’ve become engaged to be married, and set out on a journey of attempting to buy a house with my beloved fiancée. (Houses are bewildering and expensive.) This makes me feel rather sympathetic to the just-turned adult protagonists of E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing, who are all of a sudden finding themselves dealing with truly adult concerns.
(Trying to buy a house is basically an End Boss in adulting. I had no idea—though I expecting raising a child is a little more stressful.)
That Inevitable Victorian Thing is an alternate history of the present. It’s an alternate history so implausible, diverging from ours as it does with an anti-racist, neo-feminist Queen Victoria whose descendants still rule a (mostly fair and just) empire upon which the sun never sets, that one is only able to accept it as pure fantasy and an excuse to indulge in some of the trappings of a Regency romance with updated technology and social attitudes, rather than any more rigorous thing. Its worldbuilding is a fantasy of imperialism and colonialism, with a background touch of eugenicist ideology, and that ultimately makes me uneasy—but the story it tells is a sweet star-crossed romance/love-triangle that nonetheless quite stole away with my affections.
Helena Marcus is about to make her debut. Invited to Toronto from rural Canada to make her bow in front of the visiting Queen as a favour to her mother, she meets Margaret, a young woman also about to make her debut. Helena has always expected that she would marry August Callaghan, her childhood friend and someone whom she yet loves, but friendship and affection blossoms between herself and Margaret, despite her continuing affection for August.
Unbeknownst to Helena, August has got himself into trouble running his part of the family’s shipping business. He’s being extorted by pirates. Also unbeknownst to Helena, Margaret isn’t the well-connected commoner she seems. She’s the heir apparent to the throne, incognito for a summer in order to get a glimpse of life the way other people live it. And Helena is shortly to make an unexpected discovery about herself, one that will set her plans for her life and future awry. These three young people are very appealing characters, and their untraditional (and untraditionally sensibly resolved) love triangle and romance is a compelling, touching, gentle story based on a bedrock of kindness. Worldbuilding aside, I loved pretty much everything else about this novel.
I wished I’d loved JY Yang’s The Descent of Monsters the way I enjoyed their The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, the earlier volumes in their Tensorate series. But while The Descent of Monsters is a fascinating experiment in voice and style—told epistolary-wise, in letters, journal entries, official reports, and interrogation transcripts—its multiple voices and discontinuous narrative style leave it feeling fragmentary.
The main character is Tensor Chuwan Sariman, a junior investigator landed with the principle role in investigating a massacre at the Rewar Teng Institute. Nobody wants the Tensor to actually investigate: their role is to rubberstamp a verdict—“terrorists did it”—that their superiors have already decided upon. But Tensor Chuwan is a stubborn sort. We first encounter them in the form of a letter to their lover. “You’re reading this because I’m dead.” That letter is a call to arms to make the people responsible for the injustice Chuwan’s uncovered pay.
Because in the course of The Descent of Monsters, Chuwan discovers some pretty horrifying things.
The Descent of Monsters also features the character of Rider, a person anyone who read The Red Threads of Fortune will remember well. Rider was at Rewar Teng in search of their lost twin sibling. We see the aftermath of the killings at Rewar Teng—caused by an escaped experiment—through their journal entries and an interrogation transcript.
The Descent of Monsters is a really interesting novella, but it feels unfinished: it ends without narrative catharsis. Part of this, perhaps, is the distancing effect of the pseudo-epistolary narrative style. Part of it may be that we’ll need to wait for a fourth Tensorate novella to provide satisfaction. Though I didn’t love the book, I still enjoyed Yang’s narrative experiment here, and I look forward very much to seeing what they do next.
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.