There’s a surprising readability to be found in this wish fulfillment fantasy for any teen girl reader, or any reader really, who might vicariously want to be a teen a girl. Who is Queen. And wields Excalibur. And talks to unicorns sometimes. You probably already know if you’re capable of enjoying this type of classical Victorian steampunk romance fantasy or not. But just for the sake of a fair review, let’s break it down anyway.
Grand Tour is actually Book II in this series by Brandt available on Amazon (Book III is on the way), but I didn’t feel restrained in any way by missing Book I. Everything you might need to know is included within the text. The famous teen Queen Victoria—you know, from the Victorian era—was killed last time and replaced by… another teen queen, this time named Juliette. I don’t understand the merit of replacing one teen queen with another except to avoid all the historical research, but as far as I can tell Juliette is no different than how I’ve seen Victoria portrayed in any number of adaptations dealing with her youthful monarchy. Nonetheless, Juliette is descended from King Arthur so that’s why she carries Excalibur everywhere with her and occasionally talks to it. But that’s all backstory. What’s young Juliette up to this time? Under the guise of husband-hunting, she boards her airship on a tour across Europe to investigate the New World Order (a secret society that wants to rule England or Europe or something which may or may not be run by [SPOILER REDACTED]), but things go horribly wrong right from their first stop in France. This is our premise.
Brandt weaves an earnestness into Juliette’s first-person narration that manages to grow on you after a while. Juliette wastes a lot of time agonizing over the events of the last book and her various love interests, which isn’t ideal, but it’s not so bad that it prevents a little charm from coming through. The characters come to life just enough to accept the premise of the story and the world they live in. Believe it or not, that liveliness isn’t necessarily all that common in speculative indie-punk fiction. By the time I got to the middling portions of the story where things can drag out or meander, this carried me through. And it didn’t hurt that the middle sections were actually the strongest for Brandt. In the Three-Act structure, most amateur writers struggle with the middle section, Act 2, the most. But the so-called “rising action” and plot-development which makes up the meat of most novels was some of Brandt’s best work. Every complication had a natural and inevitable solution that only led to further complications. It moved at a good even pace. Something interesting happened every chapter, such as a visit to the Lady of the Lake, a mechanical octopus attack on New Catalan, and the election of a new High Wizard. Most writers lose the thread of their plot or the implications of their theme (if they have one), but Brandt feels most confident navigating all this. Maybe she’s good at outlining.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of her Act 1 (the introductory set-up stuff) or her Act 3 (the climax and resolution). Both succumb to too much exposition. Telling what she should have shown us. That is, the narrator just explains or “tells” us things that happened instead of crafting the story in such a way that we can see it for ourselves. Sometimes it’s recap info from Book I (which we don’t really need). Sometimes it’s setup for the new plot (which we definitely don’t need). And sometimes it’s glazing over the story’s conclusion (which we need her specifically not to do). For example, the first four chapters could’ve been summed up in just one, with one good enemy attack inserted to introduce all the players, the plot, and the problems awaiting them. Instead much of that is setup using exposition if it’s setup at all. Likewise, the ending confrontation between Juliette and her long lost [SPOILER REDACTED] also failed to come together fully. It came so far out of left field that I didn’t even realize it was the ending yet. I kept waiting for it to tie back in with the other characters and events that I’d been reading two hundred pages about but all we get is some exposition to keep us informed of their whereabouts. I want more.
The same can be said for scene setting and political intrigue. I want more. Things like the arrival at Versailles, or the Sacred Forest, Arthurian legend, 19thc British politicking, or what it feels like to fly aboard an airship are completely glossed over. I don’t mean that the fantastic is treated mundane like in magical realism, but that adequate descriptions of the these places and ideas and experiences are completely absent from the text, both in terms of narrative world building and in terms of their impact on the story or characters. If there’s one thing you can’t skip when writing fantasy, it’s the sensation of the fantastic.
The characters take the biggest hit by lacking these proper setups or payoffs. They just sort of exist around Juliette but seldom get much attention except to do something exciting or dramatic like appear for a last-minute rescue, sacrifice themselves for the cause, go down with the ship or unexpectedly compete for the role of High Wizard. But because they weren’t setup properly, it’s hard to care (“Wait, who were they again?”). And then the exciting thing they do never comes back around for a proper payoff to influence the ultimate outcome of the story (“Whatever happened with that thing…?)
The only exception are the love interests. Did I forget to mention there’s a love triangle? Oh, how did you guess? But did you know it was between the handsome prince and the commoner bodyguard? It’s some serious soap-opera stuff, and never very original, but believe it or not, it carries the novel. It actually works. It’s honestly some of Brandt’s best stuff. When Juliette has to reveal [SPOILER REDACTED] to the prince, even though it’s about events from Book I, we are fully versed on the dramatic weight of the reveal and the potential consequences it could have on her personally, as well as England as a whole. It plays out with suspense and drama and we feel for her. And the bodyguard too! It would be easy to ridicule the romantic stuff–and again, I’m not saying it’s original by any means, but steampunk was unoriginal at its inception, its the execution that makes or breaks it–I just wish she put as much interest into expanding on Juliette’s other relationships with Professor Kasse, the wizard Briscoe, her airship Captain Shaker, or [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] who betray her (or do they? What happened with them…? I have no idea!).
Conclusion: 3 out of 5 stars.
Despite some palpable romantic drama and a knack for story progression through the middle chapters, The Queen of England: Grand Tour lacks proper setups and payoffs for most of its plot, leaves its secondary characters floundering without development, and fails to fully establish the worldbuilding requisite for a convincing and compelling fantasy world. It has a consistent theme of self-sacrifice woven well throughout the story, but never digs deep enough to explore it beyond the superficial (and YA is no excuse for being trite). For a story about a teen girl becoming Queen, choosing between lovers, wielding Excalibur and talking to unicorns while traveling Europe in an airship named Floaty Butterfly to combat secret societies, this book is exactly what you’d expect. It’s not as bad as it might sound to some of you, but it’s not as good as it might sound to the rest of you either.