'The Kingdom of Ohio' Makes for an Offbeat, Quasi-Historical Fantasy

Part historical novel, part romance, part fantasy, part pseudo-scholarly work -- this is an intriguing but oddly airless story.

The Kingdom of Ohio

Publisher: Berkley Books
Length: 323 pages
Author: Matthew Flaming
Price: $15.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-12

The Kingdom of Ohio is an odd book, part historical novel, part romance, part fantasy, part pseudo-scholarly work. The debut novel from author Matthew Flaming begins with a nameless narrator addressing an unseen listener, then quickly bounces to early-20th-century New York, a noisy, smoky, squalling hive of immigrants and laborers working at the behest of rich financiers like JP Morgan.

Morgan is a character here, as are inventors Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla, but the spotlight doesn't often fall on them—they are merely foils for the central characters. Peter Force, formerly of the wild territories of Idaho and points west, arrives in New York looking for employment, and soon lands work as part of the crew of men excavating the network of subway tunnels four layers deep beneath Manhattan. Peter has demons in his past that he flees by taking up with some of his fellows, notably Italian immigrant Paolo. Soon enough, though, his attention is distracted by a bedraggled young woman named Cherie-Anne Toledo.

Peter takes in this apparently homeless woman, transfixed by her otherworldly grace—and, it must be said, he's also taken by the flashes of her ankles that he occasionally glimpses. She spins a fantastic, if somewhat difficult to swallow, tale concerning the titular Kingdom of Ohio. Oh sure—that kingdom. She also talks, nearly incoherently, of time travel and explosions and missing years, all of which leave Peter wondering just what he's gotten himself into. Despite his reservations, he finds himself drawn to the young woman, knowing all the while that barriers of class—and possibly sanity—are likely to keep them apart.

It's to Flaming's credit that he manages to make Cherie-Anne's tale of a lost kingdom in the wilderness surrounding Toledo into something very nearly believable. Peter is himself reluctant to believe, yet when Cherie-Anne's adventures in New York bring them both into contact with Tesla, Edison and Morgan, he finds himself wondering if there is something more to her tale than is immediately apparent.

Hint: there is. But the secret to Cherie-Anne's situation lies deep underground, in those same subway tunnels that have figured so prominently since the story began, and it will be difficult to reach. It is guarded by men with guns hired by men with money, and no one knows exactly where it lies, or even what it is. Peter's experience as a laborer in the tunnels leaves him in a position to help, if he wants to—and much of the story is concerned with whether he wants to or not. He's not exactly Hamlet, but he does go back and forth on the issue, even as Cherie-Anne takes matters into her own hands with less than satisfactory results.

Flaming exercises impressive control over all this disparate material, whether delineating historical figures like Edison and Morgan, or parsing the innnermost thoughts of Peter Force. He is adept as well at sketching both the urban landscape of New York and the wilds of the frontier. In the subway tunnels, "a reddish light is shining from somewhere underground and, silhouetted in this glow, wreathed with swirling clouds of stone-dust, each figure seems to be on fire." Out west, Peter remembers "the ridgeline of the canyon above the river, the afternoon sunlight bright and golden against the evergreen forest of pine, manzanita, and laurel. The crunch of decomposed granite beneath the horses' hooves."

In the present-day storyline, that unnamed narrator traces the story of Peter and Cherie-Anne and The Kingdom of Ohio, complete with copious footnotes—about Edison, about Ohio, about events in the city—and an air of world-weariness. "Yesterday was my birthday," we are informed midway through, "—not that the event holds much significance anymore. For the last decade, each turning of the calendar has meant the same thing: a steady progression from old to older." Notwithstanding the narrator's grumpiness, the connection between these two storylines, mysterious at first, becomes clear throughout the course of the story. They intertwine satisfyingly by the end.

This is not to say the book is flawless. For such dynamic material, the story is oddly airless at times, with the characters fairly impassive and flat. The middle drags on quite a bit. Much of the present-day narrator's intrusions, which occur throughout the story, could have been trimmed without sacrificing anything. Much of this is compensated for by the book's final 50 pages, which ratchet up the tension nicely, then ramp it up even more, finally resolving in an entirely surprising twist—before adding yet another twist for good measure. Until then, there is a bit of a slogging and more than a few lulls, but Flaming pulls off the finalé masterfully.

Readers seeking an innovative mash-up of history, romance and the fantastic could do worse than spending time with this intriguing debut novel. But it's not a page-turner and it's not meant to be. Rather, its pleasures are of the more cerebral, slow-percolating kind.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.