A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon
To claim the powers of the legendary golden lotus, Tori Harding, a Victorian woman, must journey to Bharata, with its magics, intrigues and ghosts, to claim her fate, and face a choice between two suitors and two irreconcilable realms.
It is 1857. After millennia of seafaring, and harried by the kraken of the deep, in a monumental feat of engineering Anglica has built a stupendous bridge to Bharata. Bharata’s magical powers are despised as superstition, but its diamonds and cotton are eagerly exploited by Anglic colonials. Seething with unrest over its subjugation, Bharata strikes back with bloody acts of magical terrorism.
Despite these savage attacks, young Tori Harding yearns to know if Bharata’s magics may also be a path to scientific discovery. Tori’s parents hold little hope for her future because she has a club foot. Therefore they indulge her wish to have instruction in science from her famous botanist grandfather, even though, as a woman she will be denied a career in science by the male-dominated scientific societies. Though courted by a friend of the family, Captain Edmond Muir-Smith, Tori has taken to heart her grandfather’s warning not to exchange science for “married slavery.”
Emboldened by her grandfather’s final whispered secret of a magical lotus, Tori crosses the great bridge with her father’s regiment and Captain Muir-Smith. In Bharata she encounters her grandfather’s old ally, the Rana of Kathore, his rival sons, and the ancient museum of Gangadhar, fallen to ruin and patrolled by ghosts.
In pursuit of the golden lotus, Tori finds herself in a magic-infused world of silver tigers, demon birds and the enduring gods of Bharata. As a great native mutiny sweeps up the Rana’s household, her father’s regiment and the entire continent of Bharata–Tori will find the thing she most desires, less perfect than she had hoped, and stranger than she could have dreamed.
Anglica, an alternate version of Victorian England, and Bharata, the Indian sub-continent, are in the midst of a cold war with one another. The Anglicans are using new technology to promote their imperialistic policies. Meanwhile, the Bharatans struggle with rules imposed on their society that they don’t want, or understand. As this war escalates, people on both sides are searching for enlightenment; the Anglican’s using science and reason, the Bharatan’s using mysticsm, spirituality and magic. These opposing ideologies are what form the backbone to the story in A Thousand Perfect Things.
Astoria ‘Tori’ Harding is an engaging protagonist. Living at a time when women were expected to be nothing more than wives and mothers, she dreams of something more. The strong relationship she has with her grandfather has created an independent young woman who is determined to live her own life. Her natural inquisitiveness and determination feel palpable on the page, and I found myself rooting for her to succeed. Tori won’t let anything get in her way. Her disability, her gender and her place in society are all against her but this just makes her that much more determined to prove herself anyone equal. She has given her entire life over to scientific study and believes the only way to come to any sort of resolution to the conflict is to find the direct link between science and nature.
Alternate history can be a tricky business. It’s all about trying to find the delicate balance between including just enough factual detail to make things feel authentic, against a fiction that entertains. This is where Kenyon’s writing really excels. There are a plethora of tiny little details, sometimes just throwaway lines, that make the novel come alive. Nothing is missed, everything from the slight difference in the lives of Victoria and Albert to the Anglican’s on going trouble with those bothersome Picts. I haven’t even mentioned the potential pitfalls related to travelling over the sea bridge and random kraken attacks.
Using the historical events of the 1857 Indian Mutiny as basis for the novel, Kay Kenyon has added a rich additional layer of detail to her story. With each new chapter there is a growing sense of tension. The civil unrest within the Bharatan populace against their Anglican ‘masters’ eventually boils over into a fully-fledged rebellion.
There was just one thing that struck me as a little odd. There is a particular conversation between two characters, one is arguing with the other, and there is a phrase used that just didn’t seem to fit. A quick Internet search confirmed it was about one hundred years too early for its use. This miss-step was a little jarring, but in fairness it was a one off. Up until that point, and afterwards, the conversations between all the characters came across as pitch perfect for the era.
This is the first book I’ve read written by this author and I was suitably impressed. It manages a good job of being many different types of tale all at once. Kenyon has created a story that is part steampunk adventure, part alternate history and part magical fantasy all woven together in a single reassuringly comprehensive narrative. There is something here for every taste.
A Thousand Perfect Things is available from Premier Digital Publishing now.