Book review of M. J. Neary’s Wynfield’s Kingdom…

(M. J. Neary, Wynfield’s Kingdom, Crossroad Press, ASIN B01LM3QZT8, ISBN 978-1519020086)

Novels should have more than good plots.  They should have meaningful themes interweaved reflecting on problems humanity faces.  I don’t read fluffy romances or cat mysteries.  Thank you, author Neary, for writing an excellent one that is more than fluff…a lot more!

The British aristocracy and government never historically promoted slavery per se, but they exploited other ethnic groups in their colonies and allowed the latter to exploit them and have slaves. And Britain effectively exploited their own people in the poor city slums they created from medieval times to the present day. The worst aspect of this was the exploitation of women and children, especially the children.

This is the setting at the beginning of this novel, gritty historical fiction (mid 1800s) that makes Dickens’s stories (Dickens is mentioned as a Wynfield contemporary) and Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (made famous by Hauptmann and Weill’s Threepenny Opera) seem like sugar-coated visions of a much grimmer reality.  Dark and gloomy doesn’t really begin to describe it.

Life is hard in Bermondsey, a London slum. Dr. Tom Grant, a physician black-listed by a rich patron, retreats from medicine and saves two waifs, a boy Wynfield and a girl Diana, from evil experiments linked to their orphanage; the two become the author’s main characters. Wynfield and Diana have their own separate pathos created by an uncaring British society as they struggle to survive clinging to the underbelly of London propriety. Their lives seem more than fictional. Instead, they’re a dark biographical indictment of an empire where aristocracy still reigns and lies heavily on its people, especially on the middle class and poor.

Poverty is where revolutions, be they good or bad, are born; that’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget even today. People who are pushed too far and have nothing left to lose can justifiably cope in many ways, as this novel shows. When men, women, and children are treated like street mongrels, they have a tendency to bite back. With their absurd monarchy, the British have never realized this. I’m not sure the rest of the world has either.

But I digress. Let’s summarize the story. After Dr. Grant saves Wynfield and Diana, the two foster children grow up and become closer.  Diana becomes sick and Wynfield becomes the king of the slum, a rowdy rake of a fellow without many scruples when it comes to minor crime. The two become close, but he meets a ship’s captain named Kip who befriends Wynfield; the latter becomes obsessed with Kip’s girlfriend who leads Wynfield on a bit. Kip and his girlfriend have a hidden agenda, but I offer no spoilers here. When a gun Wynfield stole from a local cop is used to kill that cop, Wynfield is arrested and faces the gallows as the cop’s replacement tries to use the case to make his mark so he can move up to a Westminster beat. Things get hectic from there, as the author takes the reader through many twists and turns in the plot, leading to a surprising ending that involves none other than Victor Hugo.  There’s a bit of nuance here: Dr. Grant is to Wynfield as Jean Valjean is to Cosette, and the wretched in Wynfield’s Kingdom live squalid lives similar to those in Les Miserables.

Some interesting scenes that captured my attention: A play about Cromwell performed by Wynfield and friends is important for its portrayal of the Irish people’s nemesis as seen through the eyes of a Brit. The confrontation between Wynfield and the old thief, who was his mentor yet sold him for experiments as a child, is a curious coincidence. There are also some interesting quotes too: With respect to child labor, Henry Mayhew, a founder of Punch, states: “…since crime was not caused by illiteracy, it could not be cured by education…the only certain effects being the emergence of a more skillful and sophisticated race of criminals.”

This novel has very few flaws, but a few caught my attention. There are too many coincidences. While many can be explained away by Wynfield’s true background, revealed at the end, others can’t. There’s no build-up to Dr. Grant’s love affair with his servant, for example, and the story didn’t require this bit of romance. It’s a toss-up whether it will improve the reader’s image of the doctor and servant or diminish it—maybe that’s the purpose—but I could have done without it.  The novel also seems a bit rushed at the end.  I would have preferred a longer book that allows me to savor the excellent writing and how everything shakes out.

Let’s not debase this excellent tale by trying to pigeon-hole it into the commercial genres that might describe it as keywords.  Or, if you need to do so, call it a historical novel, which doesn’t say enough. It’s a complex story about a London slum and the man who was its king. But what an interesting story it is! Like all ebooks I read for R&R, I’m reviewing this one because I recognized positive storytelling skills. Many of them, in fact.  I think you will too. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

***

Rembrandt’s Angel (a mystery/thriller from Penmore Press). To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. This book is available in ebook format at Amazon and Smashwords and the latter’s affiliate retailers (Apple, B&N, Kobo). It’s available as a print version at Amazon, B&N, or your favorite bookstore (if not there, ask for it). See the review and interview at Feathered Quill.

In libris libertas!

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