Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews: The Kingdom of Ohio

January 18, 2010

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A MICHAEL NUHN REVIEW }

The Kingdom of Ohio (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam) is Matthew Flaming’s debut novel about the constancy of love through the uncertainty of memory and time. His protagonists are thrown together by random chance and circumstances more shifting than any of them fully realize, and is narrated by an old man nearly a century after the action has taken place.

Set in New York City in 1901, The Kingdom of Ohio’s backdrop will feel immediately familiar to millions of readers. Kirkus Reviews’ analysis of the book claims it has “hints of steampunk aesthetics,” but this is a bit of an understatement as the driving force behind the novel is the subway system, under construction and in the process of turning the caverns beneath the city into a gigantic machine. The Kingdom of Ohio is to steampunk as the hammerhead is to its haft. Part historical fiction, part alternate reality, and wholly romantic, Flaming’s novel is a conglomerate of popular publishing trends and timeless storytelling elements. Thankfully, the reader is left to decide exactly how far into the history of the novel to delve and can choose not to read all the footnotes and citations without losing out on any critical elements of the story.

Flaming’s prose is interestingly different than most, with the entirety of the novel presented in the present tense. Coupled with the narrator’s warning, “Telling the story is easy. It’s just deciding which parts to include...”, the technique helps blur the line between reality and fiction. It becomes especially important after the protagonists Peter Force and Cheri-Anne Toledo realize that the events of history in their minds are not exactly the same and people they remember meeting do not know them. 

Although Flaming puts a lot of work into the alternate reality of Cheri-Anne, it is one of the aspects of the book that I appreciated least. Alternate reality plots are a dime a dozen these days; it seems like I can’t go to a movie theater without being accosted by them in trailers, and they’re rampant in television dramas, to boot. I actually yelled “Infinite Worf Syndrome!” out loud while reading the book (see Star Trek:TNG season 7, episode 11). Also, the mythical kingdom in the Great Lakes region may or may not ring true to other readers, but I, for one, have had enough alternate tales of the foundations of cities and countries and definitely cannot be bothered to dig through footnotes trying to discover which are real citations and which are clever fabrications to support the author’s machinations.

The “arrestingly re-imagined titans such as Edison, Tesla and J.P. Morgan” (William Dietrich) were similarly uninteresting to me as a reader. The real-world financiers and inventors seem to fulfill no role in the story other than to provide a sufficiently powerful, ergo believable, backdrop of menace. Neither side, Edison and Morgan nor Tesla, is truly villainous, but both work against the protagonists in their own way. There are hints that the real power and danger is from the machine that they all seek, but it is a twisted road one must take to arrive at the right conclusions.

On a completely different note, as I read I came to appreciate the interaction of Peter and Cheri-Anne more and more. It’s not often that an author builds a romance on moments as transient as Peter and Cheri-Anne’s and achieves a believable result. The reader can feel their relationship growing, despite their setbacks and the forces arrayed against them. The narrator focuses on the longing between the two of them, which, in a novel that explores the different outcomes that every decision can bring about, is a fitting thing indeed. 

The Kingdom of Ohio is a quick read. Fans of steampunk, people who love fairytales, and anyone who has lived in New York City and wondered about the original colors of subway tiles should take a look. 

2 comments

Miss Kayce said... @ January 19, 2010 at 12:38 AM

Sounds like something to put on the mile-high book list, then.

Michael said... @ January 20, 2010 at 1:13 PM

It's definitely a book for that, although you may be infected by the mistrustful-of-technology tone while 30000' above.

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