In 1866, Captain Matthew Percy is a dreamer with a ship full of ice from Maine and a partially Black crew. But when his ship gets blown off course, he ends up selling his cargo to an island of djinn. He returns to his home in Maine with a lot of gold, no contract, and a djinn bride. The King of Next Week, by E.C. Ambrose, combines romance, social commentary, and a keen appreciation for human nature into an enjoyable historical fantasy.
I was surprised by how invested I was in the romance. Captain Matthew Percy proposes to djinn princess Janiri after talking to her for less than fifteen minutes. This kind of instant courtship is a common trope within fairy tales, but it would be easy for it feel ridiculous in the grounded reality of this story. But it works. Matt and Janiri both yearn to for impossibilities and new horizons, so of course when Matt meets a djinn woman, he immediately falls in love. And of course Janiri jumps at the chance to go back to Maine with him, and see a world that is the complete opposite of her island home.
After Matt weds Janiri and returns to Maine, we get to the part of the fairy tale that is often left out of modern conceptions of the genre. How do you integrate a fairy bride (and fairy gold) into the real world? Matt had a hard enough time in town when his dreams were as tame as “I bet I can get a cargo of ice all the way to Africa” and when his belief in equality only went as far as having a mostly Black crew including his best friend, Will, as his first mate. He has a much tougher gulf to navigate with his new wife and the repercussions of his voyage.
At the core of this story is the challenge of building relationships across difference. The main example, of course, is Matt and Janiri. While they love each other deeply, they come from very different worlds, with very different cultural assumptions. But we also have Matt’s relationship with Will. After fighting together in the war, they regard each other as brothers, but there is much about Will’s past that Matt still doesn’t know. Even Matt’s relationship with the rest of the town, some of whom see him as a wildcard, if not an outright villain, feeds into this.
The fantasy in this story is grounded in the real-world details of the time and place. Whether Matt is standing aboard his ship during a storm off the coast of Africa, or harvesting ice from a pond in Maine, you can be assured that you will know how it looked and felt. This story is full of tiny details, like the fact that officers in the Civil War generally wore plain caps, to avoid being targeted by the enemy. Those details build a world one brick at a time, with no walls of descriptive text to wade through. It does make this novella a bit of a slow read, not because the story drags, but because I found myself wanting to take the time to savor it.
This story is too realistic for an entirely happy ending, but too hopeful for a tragic one. Instead, it lands on a perfect balance of bittersweetness that made my eyes tear up and my heart soar. So much of life is learning to live with differences, and figuring out how to respect people whom we don’t necessarily understand, and this book brings that conflict into the open. It deftly weaves the real-world racism and small-mindedness against the fantastical conflict between a man of earth and woman of fire.
I can recommend this to fans of history, of fairy tales, and of stories that are much deeper than they first appear.