Matthew Flaming’s debut novel The Kingdom of Ohio is a sometimes disjointed mix of fantasy and history, with a setting only slightly off from the America we all know. In Flaming’s version, the titular monarchy developed when a French nobleman was sold a parcel of land in what later became Toledo, Ohio, and it’s from this region that Cheri-Anne Toledo, a descendent of its original ruler, emerges in 1900. Cheri-Anne finds herself in New York City in the company of Peter Force, a young man working on the tunnels that would become the New York City subway system. With her conviction that she has traveled in time from seven years in the past, Cheri-Anne enlists Peter’s help to prove her claims.
All of this is framed by the musings of an unnamed present-day guide, who provides plenty of historical-sounding citations for his account of Peter and Cheri-Anne’s encounters with the likes of Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and J.P. Morgan. Narrator Todd McLaren shines best in the book’s first-person sections, his warm tones providing the perfect context for this weary but eager storyteller. In the framing segments that mostly come at the beginning of each chapter, McLaren sounds less like a reader than a friendly, welcoming raconteur.
He stumbles a bit with the various foreign accents required by the range of characters in turn-of-the-century New York, and has a habit of using an irritating breathy tone when voicing characters’ inner thoughts. Still, he mostly navigates Flaming’s meandering story well, drawing the listener in to tales of the beginnings of the Ohio kingdom, Peter’s youth on the Idaho frontier, and the bitter rivalry between Tesla and Edison. McLaren also does what he can with Flaming’s copious, often superfluous footnotes, but reading them aloud has a tendency to disrupt the story’s momentum.
Those stumbling blocks aside, Kingdom is an often engrossing experience with a nice sense of wonder, even if Flaming’s prose is sometimes a little florid. It illustrates a world of possibilities just behind our everyday reality, and McLaren’s performance makes that world come alive. Josh Bell