“He thinks of numbers and electricity, reason and magic.”
I am hardly a fan of science fiction or fantasy — at least not the contemporary version of it. But Matthew Flaming manages to reinvent a Jules Verne-esque adventure. And in the midst of the action, finds quiet moments to consider how history is written, and remembered. How permanent is memory? Can a photograph be evidence of anything?
Peter Force leaves the frozen hills of Idaho in search of something better in fin de siecle NYC. Struggling, he takes a job as a digger of the first subway tunnels. His natural ability to understand mechanics lands him a promotion of sorts to the machine shop. One afternoon he sees a woman stumble in the park, and he is possessed by an urge to help her. His actions are innocent enough, but once she confides in him about her strange past, he quickly becomes embroiled in a secret race between Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and JP Morgan.
|Financeer JP Morgan|
The young woman is an heir to a lost kingdom in Ohio. The Latoledan family was given tracts of land in the Louisiana Purchase and allowed to keep their autonomy throughout the Revolution and the Civil War. Toledo was their capital and for a time they flourished. But as Manifest Destiny took hold, and subsequent generations mismanaged their land, the kingdom shrank to a speck on the map. It seems she is the only surviving Latoledan — only because she escaped the siege via a transportation machine she worked on with Tesla (in this way, it reminds me of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and the “New Transported Man”).
|Inventor Nikola Tesla|
It sounds far-fetched when I say it, but Flaming’s book is surprising believable. There is just enough truth to make it all plausible. This was new science for these steampunk inventors. Tesla and Edison truly were experimenting with the unknown. Flaming never strays too far from established history, and he inserts completely believable footnotes and references. It was convincing enough that I had to investigate for myself.
I’ll leave that discovery to the reader, but I will say that a search of Peter Force came back with exciting results. There was a Peter Force, who was descended from a French Hugenot family, and was a minor politician in early America. His was a printer, editor and collector of documents and founded the American Archives. His personal collection was also purchased by the US Government to start the Library of Congress. I am certain this is no coincidence. In fact, nothing in this novel is a coincidence. Each string of thought leads to another, when it just as easily could have led to a third — not unlike the labyrinthine tunnels under the city streets.
Flaming’s form is also satisfying. His narrator reveals himself slowly. It is only in the last few pages that the whole picture is seen, yet it is not a gimmick. The novel is not about the narrator — or at least, not only about the narrator. It is about something much larger and grander than we can comprehend. And therein lies its draw.