BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Tori Harding, struggling against the class and gender boundaries of her society, makes a fateful journey across the world to find herself immersed in the trappings of colonialism and power struggles.
PROS: Deep and interesting worldbuilding; strongly designed and focused protagonist; interesting social commentary and thematic resonances.
CONS: Book peaks too early; last portion of the book feels like an overly long epilogue.
BOTTOM LINE: A strong turn into pure fantasy for Kay Kenyon.
Tori Harding is as interested in Natural History as her grandfather. Studying the natural world, making a name for herself in academic circles, and being accepted as a part of scientific society are far more interesting to her as a future than finding a husband. However, Tori lives in the quasi-Victorian realm of Anglica, where women do not take part in scientific societies, no matter how well connected or talented, especially if they are seeking to connect the science of Anglica with the magic of the realm of Bharata. Bhararta is a couple months journey away by sea, or by means of the new bridge that connects the two realms. When Tori has the opportunity to journey to Bharata herself, she finds much more than the opportunity to prove her theories, in Kay Kenyon’s A Thousand Perfect Things.
Although Kenyon’s Entire and the Rose science fantasy series had elements of a fantasy landscape even within a science fictional background, A Thousand Perfect Things is Kenyon’s first turn into pure fantasy. It is set in a fantastic version of our own 19th century, and (sometimes distractingly) place names and worldbuilding elements are lifted nearly verbatim from our own England and India. Anglica and Bharata appear to be the two massive continents in this world, newly connected by that new bridge. The capital of Anglica is “Londinium”, and a magical terrorist attack occurs at Nelson’s column. The date given is 1857, which gives a clue as to the historical parallel Kenyon is employing, namely the First War of Indian Independence (The Sepoy Mutiny).
Even given the distraction of names, and one can argue that Kenyon is making a political and sociological criticism by hewing to names that evoke England and India, the worldbuilding is interesting and top notch. The bridge’s structure and construction are not explained, but its the “freebie” of worldbuilding that allows for the plot of the novel, from the prologue’s terrorist attack through the political and social insurrection that Tori faces when she gets to Bharata. The magic system explores the ethics and problems of a magic based on sacrifice, and there are real moments of transcendence and wonder as Tori approaches her goal of finding the golden lotus that she believes will help bridge science and magic.
Tori is far more complicated than just a woman that bucks society’s expectations. She also has a physical debility: a deformed foot that strongly affects her psychologically as well as physically. Even more important, it ties in neatly with the plot and her emotional growth, making it a part of her character rather than an affect. Tori is a heroine in Sarah Chorn’s Special Needs in Strange Worlds mold. That aforementioned emotional and personal growth is the heart of the novel and the scenes that serve it are some of the strongest. Tori is not our only viewpoint character, but she is the one that holds the most interest, demanding the reader to keep turning pages to learn more of her story and how she pursues her goals and life in Bharata, and, in the midst of it, how the flames of insurrection build around her and those she holds dear.
For all that, though, the book’s structure feels a bit off, with the heroine’s emotional and personal arc coming to a peak far too early as compared to the narrative. This means that the rising action and the rising emotional stakes and growth of Tori dovetail together wonderfully for about two thirds of the book, but once Tori reaches her peak the rest of the book feels emotionally a lot flatter, even as a lot of events happen in the narrative. I felt emotionally distant from the narrative after her personal triumph, and the last portion of it felt like it was“going through the motions”. There are ostensibly exciting, crucial events in that last portion of the book, but for most of them, Tori is offstage, and given how strongly she affects the narrative of the rest of the novel, it hurts the impact of what Kenyon is trying to do. It’s a shame, too, since a lot of the juice of the exploration of the themes of colonialism and cultural dominance are resolved in this latter portion of the book.
Even given the flaw in the last portion of the book, A Thousand Perfect Things is definitely worth reading, and would even make an interesting companion piece to Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, which is firmly set in a post-post colonial time frame, whereas A Thousand Perfect Things is set within the colonial time frame entirely. Both books, however, look at similar sorts of issues, although from completely different perspectives and characters, and like Bennett’s book, Kenyon’s features an interesting female lead, with a strong emotional and personal journey in the midst of a whirlwind of events. Kenyon has made her own bridge, from science fiction to fantasy, and crossed it successfully.