Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: The Kingdom of Ohio, by Matthew Flaming

Some view Steampunk as a very specific literary genre, encompassing a particular time and place, and incorporating specific stylistic elements: set during Queen Victoria’s reign, in England or English possessions, with steam-powered devices, cogs, gears, rivets, goggles, and airships. I take more of a Big Tent view: I know it when I see it. (Which, coincidentally, was Justice Potter Stewart's definition of...oh, never mind.) By my definition, The Kingdom of Ohio is most certainly a Steampunk novel, though it incorporates almost none of the traditional elements. It is also a very fine book.

The novel is told by an unnamed elderly man in modern-day Los Angeles that is very similar to ours, an antiques dealer who has found an old photograph that has caused him to sell his shop and write down a fantastical tale. This story-within-a-story is set in 1900, just as New York City is building its magnificent subway system. A newcomer to New York, Peter Force finds work – hard work indeed – on a subway construction crew. One day while he is wandering through the city, a young woman collapses in front of him. He helps the woman, clearly disoriented, who tells him that she is missing several years and that she is from the Kingdom of Ohio. Force thinks her mad, of course – there is no Kingdom of Ohio, and time travel does not exist. Against his better judgment, he first buys her a meal and then finds her shelter. (The horrible impropriety of an unmarried man and woman spending the night in the same room, unchaperoned, however chastely, shocked this reader.) The woman, who gives her name as Cheri-Anne Toledo, tells Force about her upbringing as the king’s daughter. She is a mathematical prodigy, and meets and shares ideas with Nikola Tesla. One of those ideas involves a teleportation device, which Cheri-Anne works on privately.

Our narrator fills in some of the detail of the Kingdom of Ohio: in the 18th century, the fledgling United States government sold land in its western territories, including a large area in Ohio, which was purchased by Henri Latoledan. Latoledan led a group escaping the strictures of the Old World, becoming their king. Several generations passed. The U.S. found the Kingdom to be an embarrassment, and sent troops to reclaim the land.

Meanwhile, in New York, Cheri-Anne visits Tesla, who has no recollection of the woman. He has her arrested. Meanwhile, financier J.P. Morgan, working with Thomas Edison, has been looking for the secret to time travel for several years. Morgan hears that Cheri-Anne has claimed to be a woman who died seven years earlier, and has travelled through time. Morgan hires Peter Force to get Cheri-Anne out of jail so that Morgan and Edison may talk to her. Peter does this, much to Cheri-Anne’s dismay, but when he realizes that Morgan wants Cheri-Anne’s secret, the two of them escape. They search for the portal that is needed to operate the device while staying clear of the police, who are in Morgan’s control.

Flaming maintains the illusion that this is a historical novel through extensive use of footnotes – about the construction of the subway, details of New York City, Cheri-Anne’s arrest, and even the Kingdom of Ohio. He plays with our perceptions of time and place…at one point, the narrator watches Wheel of Jeopardy and Price It Right, signaling that his Los Angeles may be close to our, but is not the same.

The novel is many things: a romance, a time-travel story, a meditation on the impermanence of history and memory. It provides a window into working class lives of the early 20th century. And it’s got Tesla and Edison! What’s not to like?

In fact, I enjoyed the book very much. Though not Steampunk in the “traditional” sense (can there be tradition in a relatively new genre?), The Kingdom of Ohio has a Steampunk aesthetic. I look forward to Matthew Flaming’s next book.

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