Monday, July 22, 2024

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is the Victorian AU We Deserve

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Ever since Star Wars: Ahsoka, I’ve been a big fan of E. K. Johnston’s. Needless to say, when I heard she was working on a Modern-Victorian alternate universe (trust me, it makes sense) with LGBT+ characters, I immediately put it on my ‘to read’ list. That book is That Inevitable Victorian Thing, and it’s already joined my list of favorite queer YA fiction. If you like the Victorian aesthetic minus all the icky colonialism, LGBT+ characters, multi-racial characters, secret identities, Significant Handholding™, debut balls, princesses in disguise, and Canada, you’ll like this book.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history. The imperial tradition of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage. But before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer of freedom and privacy in a far corner of the empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir 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 extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process.

Set in a near-future world where the British empire was preserved not by the cost of blood and theft but by the effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world.

The Good Stuff

While the story may start off a bit slow, the Victorian ambiance is present from the very beginning. As the book title says, this is Victorian. But probably not Victorian the way we’re used to seeing it; it’s not historical Victorian, nor is it steampunk. I don’t know what else to call it other than ‘Modern Victorian.’ Characters call their parents ‘mama’ and ‘papa’, drink tea, sit in parlors, and wear crinolines under their dresses to debut balls. But they also drive cars, use tablets and credit cards, and have something roughly equivalent to the internet. It’s at once British and Canadian in tone. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does. All these facets fit neatly together to create an immersive and believable alternate universe (AU) where the British empire never fell.

Which brings me to worldbuilding. There are two basic tenants of worldbuiding in this novel, the first of which is that, as mentioned, the British empire never fell. Now, unlike something like the Confederacy, there’s nothing inherently troubling about an AU where the British empire continued. A lot depends on execution and how one handles the issues of colonialism, racism, and elitism associated with the Victorian era.

Johnston, to my mind, takes great care to correct many of the injustices of the British empire, which goes a long way in resolving any cognitive dissonance that may arise. In this universe, a successful slave revolt in the Caribbean led to the emancipation of the entire area. The revolt spread to the southern US as well, and the South became an independent nation of former slaves. Treaties with the First Nations were honored and the peoples never displaced. Even India seems to have independence and agency. “Empire” seems less a matter of oppressive colonization and more a united group of countries and cultures that all agreed to accept the British monarch as their ultimate, if distant, ruler.

Diversity of characters and culture arises from Queen Victoria I’s intentional choice to create a healthy and interconnected empire by marrying her children and grandchildren into international families rather than European ones. All three protagonists are multiracial, and one of the secondary characters, Elizabeth, marries into a family from Jamaica. Johnston also makes absolutely clear that the characters who enter into service, like maids and valets, do so by choice and that it’s a job like any other. It’s a small thing, but I appreciate the attention to detail here.

Besides creating greater racial diversity and the feel of an empire that actually cares about the cultures within it’s boundaries, Victoria I’s choice stands as a feminist one. She chose to be her own queen rather than be controlled, and urged her daughter and heir to do the same. This entire world is built upon powerful women using their privilege, position, and power to create a more inclusive, diverse, and healthy world.

This brings up the second major tenant, that of genetic matchmaking. When children turn 18, they come of age and can access the Computer. This gives them a readout of their genetic code, flags any potential health problems, and finds genetic matches for them, which can then be used as the basis for finding a spouse. Love matches still exist in this world—Helena’s parents were one, as is that between Helena’s maid Fanny and August’s valet Hiram. But there’s a distinctly Victorian flavor to the desire to put the health of one’s future children first through genetic matching, as a duty to both God and the Queen.

The matching never becomes as squicky as it might sound. This isn’t Gattaca. The Empire staunchly refuses to pursue genetic manipulation and eugenics, the former of which the US and other countries pursue. [Side note: there’s a lot of side-eyeing of the US and its many issues, including racism, piracy, and its failure to take care of the poorest and most marginalized of it’s citizens.

While it would be tempting to see this merely as Canadian smugness (and there may be some of that), Johnston does so while being aware of and correcting many of Canada’s and Britain’s own issues. I find it rather delightful; most YA books are set in the US, so a Canadian perspective is a nice change. And, unfortunately, the criticism is well deserved.] There are, however, some questions about just what Helena’s mother does with her ‘patients’ left unanswered in the book.

It’s not a perfect society, but it is intentionally inclusive and diverse. It’s clear Johnston wanted to keep the Victorian aesthetic and correct the injustices of the empire rather than ignore or erase them.

Now onto the characters! I’ll get to the main ones in a minute, but I have to say that Johnston has once again created an array of fascinating secondary characters. Elizabeth Highcastle is stunning; she’s like Emma Woodhouse, only less naïve and actually as smart as Emma thinks she is. Actually, she’s probably even smarter. Fanny has a hilarious moment near the end, and the friendship between her and Helena is very sweet. Even though he never physically appears on page, I adore the Archbishop of Canturbery. His meditations are so well done; you really get a sense for who he is as a person and how he could help shape the future into something even more inclusive.

Princess Victoria-Margaret, or Margaret as she’s called most of the book, is a delightfully thoughtful, down-to-earth, and intelligent character. Yes, she’s a Princess in Disguise (ngl, I love this trope with female characters), but she’s not doing so to be rebellious or even to go on a ‘spiritual journey’ to learn ‘what it’s like to be poor’.

There is no infantilizing noble poor trope here. She just wants to have a debut—a season lasting anywhere from a week to a month filled with parties, balls, and teas used to introduce and welcome 18-year-olds into adult society—something royal children don’t get to have. It’s depicted very much as a last chance for her to experience freedom and be herself before a lifetime of duty and service as the queen. She might be a dutiful princess, but I’ll leave it to Kylie and Julia to decide if they read this.

Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the premiere scientists of the entire Empire, has social anxiety. She prefers small groups of friends and family to large parties of strangers (I relate so hard), yet finds herself invited to debut with her cousin Elizabeth Highcastle in the major city of Toronto instead of her small, university town. She’s thrown into the big city scene and, like Margaret, discovers pieces of herself she didn’t realize existed. She’s introspective, intuitive, and self conscious. Nevertheless, she has a fun, carefree streak to her that’s enjoyable to see unfold.

August Callaghan, the third and least fleshed out of the protagonists (see below), is an old family friend of Helena’s. They’ve had an understanding that they’d get married when she debuted for years. Yet, in the midst of her debut season, he must wrestle with the consequences of a poor business choice he made that could disrupt an engagement and his place in the family business.

All of them grapple with the intersection of duty and desire. August wrestles with duty to his family business and a desire to protect himself and Helena from the aftermath of his choices. Margaret will be queen one day, her life is not her own. Her personal desires must always be sublimated to her role as heir. Helena finds that her heart is not as straightforward as she once thought; which has more weight, new love or old? Does a vision of the future cast as a child hold equal weight once you become an adult and find out that life’s more complicated than that? Must one accept the choices given to them, or are there other, unique and yet difficult, ways one can find to have both the life they want and fulfill their duties? How does one balance personal identity with obligation?

This latter question is especially poignant in our current society. Many from older generations see Millennials and Generation Z as prioritizing identity to the point of absurdity, while they would perceive Baby Boomers as overly relying upon obligation, to the detriment of their mental health and tolerance of others who differ from them. Johnston raises that intersection indirectly, and in a setting where the conflict would have been much more tangible in terms of life and family choices.

The result is a poignant story with a unique conclusion: sometimes the way through is to not accept either option. Making one’s own path within the strictures of society can then be used to open up new avenues for future generations. In short, it’s neither fuck the system nor embrace the system, but work within it and change it bit by bit.

Potential Drawbacks

First and foremost, there are some structural issues to the book. The first act is slow to begin, the third act rushed, and the second, middle act could use a stronger driving tension. The central core of the book’s tension derives from secrets. Each one of the protagonists has something they’re hiding, both from each other and the wider world. But not all secrets, and the act of keeping them, are created equal when it comes to narrative momentum.

Margaret’s fear of discovery crops up every now and again, but there’s no significant threat to her disguise until the final quarter of the book. There’s no sense of urgency to her being undercover, until there is, and then it’s almost instantly resolved. Helena’s internal conflict, while really well written and compelling, provides very little plot tension. It informs her interactions with others but does not move the plot forward other than to push August away and cause him to question her commitment to him. Yet even that takes place more in his head rather than between them.

August’s secret is the weakest link in the chain, in my opinion. His could very well have destroyed his family’s business and any prospects of a relationship with Helena, or anyone else for that matter. He broods about it quite a bit. But, other than a single scene (the one that leads to the resolution), we don’t see it manifested in plot tension other than to provide a reason for him putting off an official engagement to Helena. I wish we could have seen more real world effects to his choices. His delay in seeking out the Admiral’s help could have been played up. The pirates could threaten to expose him, or come demand payment in person. More than one scene of sneaking around could have enhanced the tension between him, Helena, and his family.

In fact, August could have been rounded out much more overall. I’m not always entirely certain what Helena sees in him other than that they’re old family friends and ‘had an understanding’. That she does love him is clear on page, but not always why. He’s a nice person, don’t get me wrong, but he’s fairly flat. A bit more showcasing of that mischievous streak we hear about would have been nice. Getting to see him relax and unwind like Margaret and Helena—maybe a false hope of a resolution to his business problems then dashed—would have gone a long way toward fleshing him out.

I also would have liked to see more of Helena’s feelings about…well, that gets into spoilers, so I’ll save that for my next, spoilery section.

The only other drawback for me was Johnston’s habit of jumping character perspective without warning and for only a paragraph or two. I noted this in my review of Star Wars: Ahsoka, so it seems to be a regular feature of her writing. Most of the time, it wasn’t as pronounced in this novel as it was in Ahsoka, and it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment. However, it can still be slightly disorienting.

A Spoilery Discussion of Representation

This book is good enough that I don’t want to spoil the entire plot or ending for those who like to go in blind. Read at your own risk (of spoilers)!

[reveal heading=”%image% Click here to show/hide contents”]


Ahem. I’ve been holding that in this whole review. As many of you know, I despise love triangles in YA lit. Well, all love triangles that don’t end up as either queer or poly. The former hardly ever happens and the latter pretty much never (except in my headcanons), so I’m usually out of luck. But this. THIS. As I read the book, I kept wondering, hoping that it would turn out this way. When I first read the book description I even told fellow editors and Fandomentalist hosts Kylie and Julia of my hopes for a poly resolution.

And I got it.

It’s the kind of ending you get once in a blue moon for a novel in traditional publishing. It never feels forced or like pandering; it actually makes sense in universe due to the Victorian setting. “Beards”—the term for an opposite gender marriage partner used as a shield to protect queer folk from recognition and persecution—are not solely a 20th century phenomenon. The importance of bearing children to carry on the family name, especially for royals, meant that non-straight men and women in Victorian England would often marry for children and have a lover on the side of their preferred gender. Although you’re more likely to hear about this set up with gay males, given sexism and patriarchy, it wasn’t exclusive to men. Nor was it exclusive to royals, though they would have had extra pressure to produce heirs with an opposite gender spouse.

Thus, the arrangement Margaret, Helena, and August come to makes a lot of sense both historically in our world and in Johnston’s Victorian AU. I was even more pleased to see a bisexual woman at the center of the polyamorous triangle and with zero animosity on either side from her two romantic partners. Neither Margaret nor August act possessive of her or her affection. And, while they all admit their ‘situation’ will require hard work and commitment, none of them express any modicum of regret, hesitation, or bitterness. In fact, everyone seems quite happy. Picturing a loving, happy future for these three isn’t difficult; somehow, we know they’ll make it work.

Helena’s bisexuality never becoming a source of conflict means so much to me, as a bisexual woman myself. Too often, bi women become the object of suspicion, anxiety, and fear of betrayal from one (or multiple) romantic partners of either gender. The “cheating/untrustworthy bisexual” never comes into play even in subtext. Helena isn’t being insincere for pursuing romantic and sexual contact with both Margaret and August; she’s just being herself. She loves both of them.

Nor is Margaret made into a suspicious, predatory lesbian or August a jealous straight boyfriend. They’re people who love who they love and pursue an amicable, healthy, fulfilling polyamorous relationship with clear boundaries and a dedication to make it work.

However, I do think that her feelings for Margaret could have been more explicit, sooner. We see quite a bit of Margaret’s growing feelings for Helena. But, the bulk of Helena’s romantic self-talk focuses on August rather than Margaret. Both sexual encounters between the girls take place mostly from Margaret’s perspective, and I would have liked one from Helena’s, or at least more from Helena’s. It’s eventually clear that Helena loves them both, but I would have liked more with Margaret earlier on to balance out the repeated, explicit exploration of her romantic feelings for August throughout.

That one of these characters is intersex adds more layers of complexity, and beauty, to the story. As with Mask of Shadows’ portrayal of a genderfluid protagonist, I don’t feel qualified to speak to Helena as a representative character for intersex experience. I’ve been digging around for a review from an actual intersex person, and have yet to find one.

All I can say is, I appreciate that her genetics never became a source of persecution or rejection. Both Margaret and August accept her as she is, even if August is a bit befuddled at first. As with sexual orientation and polyamory, Helena being intersex is written as normal and not as rare as one might think. She isn’t ostracized or rejected, nor is being intersex a ‘genetic imperfection’ in need of fixing, as it could have become in a setting utilizing genetic matching as a key premise.

Johnston’s goal seems to be normalization and acceptance. Helena’s identity contributes to her character’s development and inner struggles in a significant but not reductive way. Her mom’s pet name for her—bright and beautiful, from the hymn “All Creatures Great and Small”—points to the possibility that she knew her daughter’s genetic identity all along and did her best to remind her daily that no matter what, she was created by God and beautiful just as she was. She isn’t a mistake.

Still, despite my positive impression, mine can’t be the final voice on this. If any of you know of reviews from an intersex author, I, please let me know! I really want to hear how Helena landed from an intersex perspective. [/reveal]

Final Score: 9/10

Maybe it’s just because I read this right before National Coming Out Day, but it resonated deeply with me. The intersection between identity and obligation and the full weight of trying to make a life for yourself with the one(s) you love while hiding who you are hit me hard, probably because I’m still not out to my family. Regardless, it’s a fun story with diverse, interesting characters in a rich world that I wouldn’t turn down getting deeper explorations of. I’m so grateful it exists.

If my drawback section sounded a bit too overly critical, believe me when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. More than anything, it’s a situation where the value gained in the representation of marginalized communities and the surprising resolution at the end more than make up for the structural flaws. Given the fascination with grimdark societies and oppressive AUs, it’s nice to see an alternate universe that’s more inclusive, not less.

This book proves that alternate history doesn’t have to be darker to be entertaining, nor does drama have to come at the expense of already marginalized communities to be meaningful. We need more books like this that value intersectionality, diversity, and positive representation; that’s how we normalize underrepresented and oppressed communities.

Images Courtesy of Dutton Books

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