books, historical fantasy, historical fiction

Book Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Disney-Hyperion, January 2016

Genre: YA, Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy (Time Travel)

9781484715772Passage, n.
i. A brief section of music composed of a series of notes and flourishes.
ii. A journey by water; a voyage.
iii. The transition from one place to another, across space and time.

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.

Blueberry is here! And in the haze of new parenthood, somehow I’ve managed to do WAY more reading than I was expecting. Turns out you have a lot of time to watch Netflix or page through your monstrous TBR list when you’re stuck in a chair nursing every two hours (or, yesterday, every hour, since someone is going through a growth spurt…).

One of the first books I finished was Alexandra Bracken’s time-travel adventure, Passenger, which was the perfect thing to keep my brain busy in the wee hours of the morning. Bracken is a self-professed history nerd who went to college in colonial Williamsburg (be still, my heart!), so I was curious to see how she incorporated her love of history into a contemporary-ish narrative. Friends, I was not disappointed. Bracken weaves thoughtful commentary on the changing attitudes of different centuries into a fast-paced adventure that romps through revolutionary America, 16th-century Damascus, and WWII-era London, as well as a few other locations that criss-cross the globe.

Etta Spencer wants nothing more than to complete her debut as a premier violinist. But in one terrible night she’s whisked away from contemporary Manhattan to a world entirely foreign to her: a privateer ship in service to the Americans rebelling against Britain in 1776. She quickly discovers that she’s part of a time-traveling family, and the tyrannical patriarch, Cyrus Ironwood, expects her to track down a valuable heirloom with virtually no training. Joining her is Nicholas Carter, an 18th-century sailor who wants nothing more than the freedom and money to control his own ship. But as much as he tries to escape the pull of the Ironwoods, he finds himself drawn back into their snare as he reluctantly agrees to help Etta find the heirloom. Together they follow a series of cryptic clues through time, racing against the clock to find the heirloom before it’s too late.

At first glance, yes, it’s a fun journey through both well-trodden and fresh historical periods. But as Etta and Nicholas get to know each other, always through the lens of whatever time period they happen to be in, they explore the undercurrents of race, class, and gender in a thoughtful way that reflects their different backgrounds. Nicholas, the illegitimate son of a slave and the Ironwood man who owned her, has chosen to remain in his natural time of 18th-century America, despite his frustration with the limitations and racism he faces as a black man. He has never traveled beyond WWII, so he can’t imagine the world ever changing. Etta, on the other hand, is a daughter of the 21st century, and she in turn is shocked by the blatant racism Nicholas has to contend with on a daily basis. She tries to convince him that things are different in her time, but because of Nicholas’ personal context, he struggles to accept that as a possibility. Similarly, Sophia, an Ironwood heiress determined to forge a place for herself, has trouble picturing a world where women can vote, trapped as she is in her early-20th-century worldview.

It’s sobering to read Passenger in the light of this summer’s tragedies in Minnesota, Louisiana, and Dallas. Despite Etta’s insistence that there would be a place for Nicholas in her time, I couldn’t help but think about how recent violence shows there’s still so much work to be done. This isn’t a political blog, and it probably wasn’t Bracken’s intention to be so topical, so I won’t say much more than that. But while Etta’s right that Nicholas would certainly find more acceptance in 21st-century Manhattan than he does on an 18th-century ship, she’s still naive about how comfortable Nicholas might be in her own time.

Still, I loved that Passenger not only dealt with the traditional mind-bending paradoxes of time travel, but also probed the deep differences in worldview depending on when characters were born. I haven’t seen that in many time-travel narratives, and it was admirably done. So, read Passenger for the thought-provoking historical commentary, or read it because a 2-week old baby is waking you up and you need something fun to keep you going. But read it.


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