Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

A History Buff Reads American Royals

 It is only fair at the outset to say that I'm a completely inappropriate person to review American Royals, a YA-ish novel pitched by the publisher as "Crazy Rich Asians meets The Crown."  I ran across it because I was researching advertising comps for my own novel, and American Royals and its just-released sequel Majesty are selling very, very well .  I was intrigued because the premise of the novel is fascinating to me from a historical point of view: After his victory at Yorktown, George Washington was offered the crown of a new American constitutional monarchy and now in an otherwise similar 2020 with smartphones and social media and WaWa milkshakes with extra M&Ms, America is still ruled by the House of Washington.  Without the fledgling republic in the New World to inspire other revolutions, the Bourbons are still ruling France, the Romanovs are on the throne of Russia, and the world is one big glitzy tabloid for those who just love reading about the latest doings of The Royals.  

Of course, my first big question, especially reading it during the long hot summer of 2020, was: What happened with slavery?  Was there a Civil War in this world?  Is slavery still around? Did a southern royal dynasty nonetheless abolish the greatest source of wealth in the 18th and 19th century South?  Beyond that, I had secondary order questions about how the presence of a monarchy would change the political and cultural nature of America.

So I borrowed a copy of American Royals from our local library.  And the answer is...  It doesn't really address those questions much at all.  The world of this monarchical America is little different from ours, aside being slightly more glitzy and woke than our own world.  (For instance, same sex marriage appears to have come about some time ago in this world, and one of the main characters is the daughter of a lesbian power-couple: mom is a dot-com millionaire and mama is a cabinet secretary in the royal administration.)

The early history of the monarchy is only hinted at.  In the first pages Princess Beatrice (who is slated to be the first ruling queen of the US) reflects on her history:

Beatrice could trace her ancestry back to the tenth century.  

It was really only through Queen Martha's side, though most people refrained from mentioning that.  After all, King George I had been nothing but an upstart planter from Virginia until he married well and then fought even better.  He fought so well that he helped win America's independence, and was then rewarded by its people with a crown.

But through Martha, at least, Beatrice could trace her lineage for more than forty generations. Among her forebears were kinds and queens and archdukes, scholars and soldiers, even a canonized saint.  We have much to learn by looking back, her father always reminded her.  Never forget where you come from.

This would seem to suggest that Beatrice's ancestors are descended from George and Martha Washington, which is a bit odd given that no one is descended form George and Martha: they had no children.  Martha had children from her first marriage.  Did they succeed to the crown?  Later in the book it's hinted that the George II who is mentioned as succeeding George I was actually his nephew (George Steptoe Washington) through George Washington's younger brother.  This would be a more traditional dynastic choice, though it's unclear then why Beatrice is sitting around reflecting on Martha's ancestry.

It's mentioned at one point that George I freed his slaves in his will (as the real George Washington did in real life) but that he had not acted to end slavery and that it was "another two generations" until this was dealt with, but we get no hints as to how it was dealt with.  

 Among the other things we don't learn much about are the development of the American monarchy as a system of government.  We get the impression that the monarchy is much more actively in power than in the modern UK.  For instance, "the king kept his Cabinet evenly divided between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans" whereas in our world the King of England hasn't had much power in picking the cabinet since...  Well, that's really kind of a tricky question, since the big contrast between the British constitution and ours is that it's unwritten.  The British George III (who was on the throne during the American Revolution) was in fact one of the transitional reigns in this regard from the era when kings clearly appointed ministers of their own choose but who had the confidence of parliament to the later era when parliament clearly chose the ministers and told the monarch who to choose.  Those better versed in British history than I could correct me, but my understanding is that after George III monarchs perhaps influenced the choice of ministers, but really didn't choose them, while before George III the monarch chose, and it was during the long reign of George III that the shift gradually happened.

It is clearly stated that the American monarchy has a written constitution, so perhaps one could imagine that the House of Washington has retained pre-George III British style prerogatives, but if you want this book to be a work of political and historical imagination (which it isn't) this seems like something you'd really want to figure out.

Another thing which is dropped out there but never dealt with is that the American monarchy apparently contains several independent duchies and earldoms.  Among these are noble titles and spheres of control granted to Native American nations.  We hear about a Duke of the Sioux and a Duke of the Iroquois.  There's also the Dukedom of Orange which covers much of the West Coast and is apparently ruled by a noble family that is Black.  All of these suggest some wild departures in history that should have some big impacts on culture, but we don't actually learn anything more about them except for what Princess Beatrice thinks of their various scions as her parents are pushing her to marry an eligible young man.  

One rather hard to swallow bit of world-building which is essential to the plot is that apparently written into the American constitution is a rule that the a monarch can only marry someone who is either from a royal house or a noble family.  America has many noble families who have been appointed to title by the monarchy over the years.  It's stated that early kings mostly married into the European royal houses, but in the book a key plot point is whether Princess Beatrice will marry the heir to the dukes of Boston or her hunky bodyguard with whom she has fallen in love.  Meanwhile, her younger sister Samantha is in love with the Boston heir whom the King and Queen want Beatrice to marry.  And young Prince Jefferson is in love with Nina, daughter of the afore-mentioned lesbian power couple, but of course Gina is a total "ordinary girl" who is totally out of place in the world of royal intrigue and fancy ball dresses, because although she's the daughter of a cabinet minister and the best friend of Princess Samantha since they were both little girls, she's also Hispanic which means that she's totally rooted and not used the high life.  Then throw in Daphne, Prince Jefferson's scheming ex-girlfriend who is sort of a Kate Middleton brought over from the Evil Star Trek mirror universe.

I am not the target market for an angsty love triangle story, but I have enjoyed some YA novels with angry love triangles so long as they're heavy on the interesting world building.  This, however, is pretty thin on the world building.  I could enjoy Crazy Rich Asians as a popcorn read that sketched a glitzy world that's utterly alien to me, but honestly I felt like I came away from Crazy Rich Asians with move of a sense of how elite Singapore society worked than I did the elite American monarchy circles of this world.  There characters in CRA, while not deep, also seemed more realistic and individual than these.  For instance, the best friend character in CRA played by Awkwafina in the movie clearly comes from a layer of society which is way richer than the main character, but at the same time not moving in the circles of the male lead's family.  Even within that topmost layer there are layers, and the characters are all conscious of them, how they got there, and in what senses they are and are not permeable.  It's not especially deep, and it may not be accurate, but it's much more layered than a world in which the daughter of a cabinet minister and a dot-com executive is an "ordinary girl" stand in because of her last name.  

Of course, the second half of the publisher's pitch for American Royals is "Perfect for fans of Red, White, and Royal Blue and The Royal We!"  I don't know these, but glancing at blurbs it looks like there's from a genre of outsiders falling in love with royalty.  So if that's your thing, maybe this is running the tropes you love.  But if you were hoping there'd be so interesting alternate history and culture mixed in with the love triangles, give this is a pass.

No comments: