Review: Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken

Passenger, Book 2; published in 2017; 532 pages.  ★★★★☆

“Do you believe in destiny, then?  That something deserves to exist, just because it once was?”
“I believe in humanity, in peace, in the natural order of things,” he said.  “I believe that the only way to balance the power of what we can do is with sacrifice.  Accepting that we cannot possess the things and people not meant for us, we cannot control every outcome; we cannot cheat death.  Otherwise there’s no meaning to any of it.”

Summary:
All Etta Spencer wanted was to make her violin debut when she was thrust into a treacherous world where the struggle for power could alter history. After losing the one thing that would have allowed her to protect the Timeline, and the one person worth fighting for, Etta awakens alone in an unknown place and time, exposed to the threat of the two groups who would rather see her dead than succeed. When help arrives, it comes from the last person Etta ever expected—Julian Ironwood, the Grand Master’s heir who has long been presumed dead, and whose dangerous alliance with a man from Etta’s past could put them both at risk.

Meanwhile, Nicholas and Sophia are racing through time in order to locate Etta and the missing astrolabe with Ironwood travelers hot on their trail. They cross paths with a mercenary-for-hire, a cheeky girl named Li Min who quickly develops a flirtation with Sophia. But as the three of them attempt to evade their pursuers, Nicholas soon realizes that one of his companions may have ulterior motives.

As Etta and Nicholas fight to make their way back to one another, from Imperial Russia to the Vatican catacombs, time is rapidly shifting and changing into something unrecognizable… and might just run out on both of them.

(From Goodreads)

There are an awful lot of trilogies out there, especially in young adult books, which really don’t need to be trilogies.  After The Edge of the Abyss and Wayfarer, though, I’m no longer sure that duologies are the solution.  While Wayfarer was still a strong and well-crafted novel, the pacing of the first half of the story dragged badly, and many new story elements were added in a rushed and haphazard-feeling manner.  It wasn’t bad, per se, but it could have been better, and a little more pagetime might have done a lot to improve things.  Say… another book?

Quite simply, there’s too much going on here.  Passenger was tightly focused on Etta and Nicholas’s journey and relationship.  In Wayfarer, Etta meets her father, Henry Hemlock, as well as Nicholas’s half-brother Julian Ironwood; separated from her, Nicholas forms an unlikely partnership with Sophia Ironwood, chasing clues left by Etta’s mother Rose and occasionally helped by Li Min, a mysterious new Traveler.  There’s exploration of alternate timelines, backstory explaining how the Travelers came to be at all, new antagonists in the form of the Shadows, questions raised about Rose Linden’s morality and motivations, and cross-continental journeys that happen in the space of a page.  The result is that everything feels compressed and, as events come to a head, rushed.  I wanted more information and time to consider pretty much every aspect of the plot.  

Additionally, after Passenger, the separation of Etta and Nicholas was jarring.  I was willing to handwave the speed of their romance in the first book because I loved their partnership and the chemistry of their interactions.  When they’re not on the page together, though, it was harder for me to buy into the idea that this relationship is a driving motivation.  Nicholas, in particular, was obsessed with finding Etta – but with so little reminder of what they were together, I found myself more frustrated with him than sympathetic.  Perhaps reading the two books back to back would produce a different reaction, but with the separation of their release dates, Wayfarer just forced me to take a step back and realize that yeah, these two have only known each other for maybe a month or so.  When they were reunited, they fell right back into the dynamics I loved… but I couldn’t unsee the absurdity of it all.

That said, there were other relationships in the book that picked up the slack.  My personal favorite was Nicholas and Sophia’s awkward alliance; it revealed a great deal more about both of them, and they acted as excellent foils for one another.  Both of them, too, are forced to confront the idea that Sophia is a better person than she pretends to be, and it leads to some great exchanges:

“Ma’am, I regret to inform you that you now have honor in spades.”
She pulled a hideous face.  “Ugh.  Is that why I feel so terrible?  Take it back, it’s awful.”

Though still a secondary character, Sophia got the chance to step a little further into the light, with her own subplots and even a romance.  Her arc was one I’d been excitedly anticipating, and I enjoyed it – but I want more.  If there are short stories in this universe in the future, I would absolutely adore one from Sophia’s perspective, at pretty much any point in her timeline, because even as she opened up to Nicholas a little I got the sense there was much more under the surface.

Also:  she has a marvelously frank ‘coming out’ scene.  While she doesn’t use the word ‘lesbian’, she is as frank as her vocabulary and time period allow her to be.  There’s something lovely about the unambiguity of it, and the fact that… it’s basically a non-issue to other characters.  Sophia is learning to take control of her life, bit by bit.

Etta’s timeline, however, suffers in the character dynamics department.  On the plus side, she gets to spend time exploring a new relationship with her father and reflecting on her absent mother – but these are complicated relationships, and all the scurrying about through time and space doesn’t leave much space for anything that isn’t part of the alpha plot.  I particularly felt the lack when it comes to Rose Linden, Etta’s mother – for much of the book, her morality and to an extent her sanity are in question, but never truly questioned.  Her choices are a linchpin of the events now in motion, and yet I finished the book feeling like most things involving her had simply been brushed off, where they should have been explored.

The strongest aspect of Wayfarer, for me, was the way Bracken handled some of the fundamental philosophical questions associated with time travel.  As timelines begin to collapse or veer off in catastrophic directions, characters must confront the power they have to choose which world exists – and the ethical dilemma it poses to decide who lives and who never existed at all.  It’s a thorny issue, and one where absolute positions are difficult to hold, and Bracken manages to stay just this side of endorsing any particular answers.  Certainly some timelines are eliminated outright as possibilities (in particular, the one in which the Third Reich develops nuclear weapons before the United States and uses them on New York, DC, LA, and presumably European cities as well – a truly gut-wrenching chapter) but characters continually struggle with what is right and what they should get to decide.  I got the sense that, as this world progresses, that struggle would remain much the same, evolving in response to changing circumstances.

The conclusion of Etta and Nicholas’s story was, as I expected from Alexandra Bracken, immensely satisfying.  For all the flaws of Wayfarer leading up to its resolution, that ending was beautifully done and struck a delicate balance between triumph and sacrifice.  As with the finale of In The Afterlight, it was both an ending and a beginning for the characters; I had the powerful sense of life continuing on afterward, which is a credit to the believability of the world and characters.  Fundamentally, I don’t feel this is Bracken’s best work, but I do see in it all the hallmarks of her storytelling skill, and even when she’s not at her best, she’s still pretty goddamn good.

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