Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Passenger, Book 1; published in 2016; 486 pages.  ★★★★☆

“Look lively.  We’ve a journey to make.”

 

Summary:
In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she’s inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she’s never heard of. Until now.
Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods—a powerful family in the colonies—and the servitude he’s known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can’t escape and the family that won’t let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas’ passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them—whether she wants to or not.
Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods’ grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home… forever.
(From Goodreads)

Alexandra Bracken is an author whose career I’ve followed since her debut (back in 2010, with Brightly Woven), and who has truly only gotten better with time.  Her work isn’t confined to a single genre:  she started with second-world high fantasy, then a trilogy of near-future dystopians, and now this:  a time travel novel, not quite historical fiction but sharing many of its traits.  While Passenger is not my favorite of her work to date (that goes to In The Afterlight, the stunning conclusion to the Darkest Minds trilogy), it is as solidly crafted as I have come to expect for her, and its ending promises a spectacular sequel in Wayfarer, expected next year.

Time travel is a tricky thing to write, especially in a way that feels fresh and new; many of the most obvious concepts have been explored and re-worked time and time again by speculative fiction writers.  Passenger offers a new take on the concept, both through its actual mechanism and through the meticulous historical research that clearly went into the book.  Locations and dates that Etta and Nicholas visit are generally rendered in great detail, and with a particular eye to how a black man and a white woman would be received there, both as individuals and, seemingly, as a couple.  There were a few instances where I would have liked more information, but this generally only applied to briefly-visited sites, and the time-and-space-hopping generally felt well thought through.

One of the difficulties about writing time travel is balancing the need for a stable timeline with the free will of characters.  If only a single timeline exists, then a character’s every action in the past is essentially ‘preordained’, and they’re not exercising choice so much as fulfilling requirements.  At the other extreme, if a character’s actions all change the timeline, the writer is left with the question of how changing the past affects the future from which they came.  (It’s the classic conundrum of going back in time and accidentally killing one of your forebears – if they don’t exist, then you can’t exist, which means you can’t go back in time, so they don’t die, so you exist… etc.)

Bracken neatly solves this problem by providing an explicit answer for what happens to travelers whose home timelines are destroyed – they’re sent back to the last point at which their personal timeline and the new ‘real’ timeline existed.  Additionally, her characters are aware of this deterministic question, and Etta wonders whether or not everything she does has been laid out already – a question answered by the climax of the book, when timelines are actually split and the consequences revealed.

Etta herself is definitely a high point of the book.  She’s sharp-tongued, fierce and opinionated, and not always to her advantage – outspokenness in a woman is an unusual, and poorly regarded, quality in some of the time periods she finds herself in, particularly the 17th century.  Still, it’s that same ferocity that enables her to keep moving forward despite struggles and setbacks, and it endears her to Nicholas, her traveling companion.

Nicholas, for his part, is a great counterpoint to Etta.  He has a similar intensity and drive, but it’s tempered with knowledge and sensibility that keep him from rushing off as she does.  I love the fact that Bracken chose to write a biracial hero in this series, and that she doesn’t shy away from historical (or even present-day) racism.  As she’s discussed, it increases the variety of experiences Nicholas and Etta have in different timelines… and it also has an impact on their eventual romantic relationship, which would be impossible in Nicholas’s natural time.

That relationship turns from wary partnership to romance a little fast for my taste; this book has a compressed timeline, but I still found myself wishing for a slower development along the lines of Ruby and Liam in Bracken’s Darkest Minds series.  That said, Etta and Nicholas balance each other beautifully, and they handle conflicts that would have driven other fictional couples apart with  maturity and even-handedness.  I’m not deeply invested in their romance, but I want to see them succeed as a partnership, platonic or otherwise.

It was Sophia, a minor character, who most captured my attention, though.  She has so much potential:  ambition and vengeance driving her forwards, coupled with naivete and arrogance that lead her to make mistakes.  Though her relationship with Etta is largely adversarial, Etta is also the first person who tells her the truth about the future and gives her hope for a world where she isn’t brushed aside for her gender.  It’s not clear what she wants, or what she’ll do to get it, but she seems positioned to be a major player in Wayfarer and honestly, I can’t wait.

The plot of Passenger is frequently described as a treasure hunt, and like a treasure hunt its pacing is variable.  Some clues are solved quickly, and Etta and Nicholas rush between times and places in a flurry of travel; others take longer, and the momentum of the story begins to drag a little.  The time travel segments sometimes feel uneven as a result; there’s no balance in how much time they spend in each location.

At stake?  Only all of history and almost everyone who’s ever lived.  All of the major factions involved want to destroy the existing timeline – the one we readers live in – to their own ends.  It’s easy to sympathize with Etta, who comes from our time and wants to preserve it, but at the same time, that exact emotion is what motivates the antagonists.  The question then arises:  whose timeline is the ‘right’ one, the one that deserves to exist over all others?  Passenger doesn’t attempt to answer it, but I imagine it’ll be something all the characters struggle with in Wayfarer.

I suspect that for many readers, the strange pacing of Passenger will be off-putting, which… is understandable.  Looking back, though, it seems to me that most of the book is just setting things up, positioning pieces as in a game of chess.  Only at the climax does the whole game become visible, and only after that can it begin in earnest.  If you’re hesitant because you’ve heard Passenger is slow, I suggest waiting for Wayfarer – I expect it’ll be considerably faster and more action-packed.  Alexandra Bracken can wrap up narrative arcs absolutely beautifully, and I’m excited to see how this one ends.

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