Years from now Victoria-Margaret will be the next Queen and continue the work her ancestor Victoria I started two centuries earlier to strengthen the British Empire for all of its people and promote genetic diversity and inter-Empire politics with an advantageous marriage. First the crown princess will have a summer of freedom for her debut season in Toronto. Although her brown skin, epicanthal fold, and freckles make her easily recognizable as the current Queen’s daughter, Margaret is able to disguise herself with the help of her natural hair and a non-royal alias.
Helena Marcus is looking forward to a quiet debut in New London and making her unspoken understanding with August Callaghan official. August wants nothing more but hopes to delay their official engagement until he can see himself clear of the American pirates plaguing his Canadian and Hong Kong Chinese family’s lumber and shipping business.
When her mother’s position as a placement geneticist brings Helena to the far more prestigious Toronto debut scene she and Margaret strike up an immediate and easy friendship with a hint of flirtation.
Spending the summer up north at the Marcus cottage near Lake Muskoka allows Margaret to see more of the Empire and to find her own place among the raucous Callaghan family. As Margaret, Helena, and August grow closer and learn more of each others’ secrets they realize they may be poised to help each other get everything they’ve long wanted in That Inevitable Victorian Thing (2017) by E. K. Johnston.
Johnston’s standalone novel blends light science fiction elements in a near-future setting with the tone and style of a Victorian novel. Chapter headers including maps, society gossip pages, and correspondence serve to expand the detailed world building and highlight how deliberately and thoughtfully inclusive the Empire is (despite realistically damaging colonialism in the Empire’s distant past).
That Inevitable Victorian Thing alternates close third person point of view between Margaret, Helena, and August as all of the characters face what it means to be an adult in charge of one’s own responsibilities and, regardless of consequences, also one’s own mistakes. The voice throughout is pitch perfect for an homage to Victorian novels and works exceedingly well with the near-future world these characters inhabit.
While Margaret faces the prospect of an arranged marriage in her future, and August struggles with how best to deal with American pirates demanding protection money, Helena faces her own surprise. At eighteen every member of the Empire is able to log into the -gnet to see their full genetic profile and seek out prospective matches. When she logs in for the first time Helena is shocked by her genetic profile and uncertain what it means for her future.
Fortunately, Helena has nothing but support from her friends and loved ones. Even as this story builds toward conflict and shocks, Johnston’s tight control of the narrative serves to suggest that regardless of the outcome, these three characters will not just make it through but thrive.
That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a self-aware novel set in a fascinating world that is filled with wit and humor. Helena’s chemistry with both Margaret and Henry crackles despite being couched in Victorian manners and conventions. A perfect introduction to speculative fiction, a sweet romance, and a delight for fans of alternate history That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a must-read for all. Highly recommended.
Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, These Broken Stars by Aimee Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White
*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the August 2017 issue of School Library Journal*