Book Review: “That Inevitable Victorian Thing” by E.K. Johnston (I of 2)

This book is in that uncomfortable range of works that is neither obscure nor famous enough to typically warrant a review from me. I like to review either indie books that are really new, or iconic books that are so famous everyone knows them. This one, though, falls somewhere in between.

I read it because of H.R.R. Gorman’s review. By the way friends, if you want to get me to read a book, this is how to do it:

“This one was a trip. Like, really weird. Super out there. I had fun for the most part, but certain elements just threw me off hard.”

Such was H.R.R.’s verdict, and to me, that’s about as enticing as it gets.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a YA romance set in an alternate future where the British Empire never fell. How exactly this happened is left vague, but it’s suggested that Victoria overrode Parliament, ruling more as an absolute than a constitutional monarch, and married her children off to all parts of the Empire, thereby embedding its influence all across the globe.

Our three main characters are Helena Marcus, the daughter of an important geneticist, August Callaghan, who is set to inherit his father’s shipping company and planning to marry Helena, and Victoria-Margaret, the crown princess, traveling in disguise for the debut season in Ontario, Canada.

In other words, we have many standard tropes of Victorian novels: disguised royalty, engagements, and lots of fancy parties and grand balls. I was impressed early on with how well the author imitated the style of The Old Victorian Novel. I was worried it was going to be one of those affairs where we’re told it’s a neo-Victorian setting, but everyone acts and talks just like modern-day people. Thankfully, that’s not the case for the most part.

And of course, also very much in keeping with the expectations of Victorian melodrama, everyone has a secret. Victoria-Margaret is concealing the fact that she is the heir to the throne of the British Empire. August is concealing an indiscreet business arrangement he foolishly made early in his career. And Helena…

…well, I won’t say exactly what Helena is concealing. But let’s say that it is one of those “accident of birth” things with which the Victorians were so fascinated. The Victorians were obsessed with concepts like blood and breeding, and that’s very much the case here, as evidenced by the prominence of the DNA-based computer dating service that drives so much of the plot.

That said, this is more of a comedy of manners than a melodrama. The plot develops largely at dances and over teas, or at long trips to the family summer retreat. Again, classic Victorian romance stuff.

The other thing that struck me about the book was how nice everyone was. There are no villains; the drama mostly comes from misunderstandings. The worst person in the whole thing is an overly-aggressive paparazzo trying to get pictures of the undercover princess. Everyone is polite, well-meaning and generally decent. (Not to fall into blatant stereotyping, but it was set in Canada, and written by a Canadian…)

Before I wrap this up, a quick word about the cover. I like it a lot. It reminds me of something. But what? I’ve been trying to figure it out, but I can’t. At first I thought it was this image of The Golden Bough, but on closer inspection, I realize it can’t be. So, what is it then? There is something Victorian that looks like that, I’m convinced of it.

Anyway, though, this is a very charming romance story that honors its Victorian heritage well. There are a few nits to pick here and there, including one super-jarring use of a certain word beginning with “f”, but for the most part, it’s a sweet, cozy tale of young love at the height of a great Empire.

Except…

…as Columbo would say, “There’s just one more thing.” Well, actually, maybe it’s more like three more things.

Could anyone seriously believe that the author of American Chimera would call a mere cozy comedy of manners “really weird”? Oh, no, no, no. There’s a lot more going on here. If you’ve read H.R.R.’s review, you already knew that.

There is so much more to address, and this is running long. So, for the first time on A Ruined Chapel by Moonlight, I’m splitting the review in two, with the second part to be posted next Friday, same bat-time, same bat-channel. Then we’ll find out what is really happening.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

8 Comments

    1. I hope you like it. It will address many of the same points you made in your review. Thanks again for bringing this to my attention.

      1. It was, indeed, a book worth reading. I haven’t decided to read a follow up (if it gets published). I liked it well enough, and I’m mildly interested to see if she follows through to address some of the issues. At the same time, I’m very wary that she’ll ignore the obvious, and that would be a very unsatisfying read.

    1. I’d be very curious to hear your take on it, both for your British perspective and especially because of your knowledge of history. I think you’ll have… things to say. 🙂

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