Sunday, May 5, 2013
The River of No Return (Bee Ridgway)
Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this book! I'm obviously quite terrible at reviewing the book before it comes out, and I evidently have a secret thing for time travel. Can we make a new genre called "literary time travel" that books like this one, Life After Life and The Time Traveler's Wife belong to?
The River of No Return certainly has an interesting premise: Nicholas Falcott, a marquess and soldier in 1812, accidentally time travels to 2003 in the middle of a battle. He is intercepted by something called The Guild, which claims to be an organization created to help these accidental jumpers--people who have unintentionally fled to the future to escape a life-threatening situation. They teach him to adjust to modern society and tell him that it's impossible to go back in time, to just forget the idea of ever returning to that life because it is gone to him.
Until, of course, it's not. Fast forward ten years and Nick is being summoned by The Guild for a special mission to travel to 1815, three years after his disappearance, to do some reconnaissance involving a faction of rogue time travelers called the Ofan. Meanwhile, his neighbor Ignatius Percy has just died, putting the life of his granddaughter, Julia Percy in danger--she, too can manipulate time, and it just so happens that Nick has been harboring romantic inclinations for Julia during his ten years in the future.
What ensues is a veritable mash-up of genres--romance, conspiracy thriller, historical fiction and sci-fi mystery. Ridgway is incredibly ambitious in combining so many different elements; one of the great joys of reading the book is seeing how successful she is in mixing together so many seemingly disparate types of narrative. But seeing the experiment succeed is not the only reason to read the book; in fact, it's probably lowest on the list.
The next step up is the plot--it's an absolutely fascinating concept and the author never flags in her dedication to the kooky factor she creates at the beginning of the book. In this respect, I was reminded strongly of Jasper Fforde: it's really easy to expect the book to fall apart because of how bizarre it is in concept, but it never does. I felt constantly engaged with what was going on, and despite the hypothetical preposterousness of the premise, it never felt ridiculous. Isn't that the mark of a truly well-crafted magical realism universe? That I can suspend my disbelief so fully that I sometimes forgot The Guild wasn't real?
But the most important reason to read this book is the characters: they are just so well-created! There are Alice and Arkady, the leader of the Guild (at least, the leader in 2013) and her randy Russian husband, Alva Blomgren, the courtesan who is also a member of the Ofan, Peter (a transgender character!) from the 1980s, and of course Nick and Julia, who are by far the most fun to read about. Nick makes for an interesting character because of his dual temporal allegiances--anyone can write a character who travels back in time and has trouble adjusting to the old ways of the past, but it takes a special talent to create the perspective of someone who has been displaced from their original time and must readjust ten years later. Julia is a powerful figure, at once innocent and aware, wanting to know more about herself and her talents. Both were compelling characters and narrators, absolute delights to spend time with.
My only complaint about the book is minor: the ending felt a little rushed. I remember seeing that I was about 10% away from the end of the book and thinking "how are we going to bring this to a conclusion?" There are some plot strands that don't quite make it in under the wire, left untied, which is okay for me (I like being able to think what I want--it's not that the ending is ambiguous, just not we don't have to settle for one ending over another) but will undoubtedly bother people who want certainty. I would have appreciated a slower ending, not least because I didn't want to be done with the book. It was such a pleasure to read.
Bee Ridgway's debut has clearly marked her as a powerful world-crafter, a dabbler in the absurd and the heart-swelling romance (which, to her credit, is not something that my beloved Jasper Fforde has ever done so well; then again, maybe he isn't trying). I have a hard time not recommending this to everyone, because there's a little bit of everything--you come for what interests you (for me, the time travel) and you stay for the things you didn't think you cared about that suck you in. Please read this book.
My rating: 5/5
The River of No Return on Goodreads
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