Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
Published: January 5, 2016 by Disney Hyperion (US & UK)
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
This is book transported me through time to so many fascinating places, from 18th-century America to London during the Blitz to Syria in 1599. Each time and each place felt so alive. At times this story can feel so other-worldly as Etta and Nicholas travel through time looking for a powerful magical object that can decide the fate of an ages old war...but these lands and times and people are not of a different world. They all belong to our world, imagined here so richly and inventively. This underpinning of the real and of true history in such a story of marvellous fantasy and time-travel adds a layer of complexity that gives Passenger an amazing quality. Etta and Nicholas's adventure is exciting and enthralling as they unravel the mystery of the magical artefact they are on a mission to find and sink further into the darkly twisted politics and intrigue of the world of the ancient, powerful time-travelling families. By the time I reached the end, I was fully enraptured and excited to discover more of this world's secrets.
Time-travel is a tricky business. In the universe created by Bracken in Passenger, this is true in a literal sense but as a plot of a novel it also poses a daunting task for the writer and the reader. Because of how complex issues about timelines become once you start messing around with them. There are so many paradoxes to avoid and it makes for a lot to explain. How successful was Passenger on the time-travelling explanations, then? Bracken did a fair job, to be sure, but I do want to say upfront that there is a lot of explaining done in the story - some instances handled better than others. For this and a few other things, my more specific rating is hovering between 3.5 and 4 stars (I rounded up for my official rating).
The opening scenes of this book were not particularly strong - I didn't find Etta's life before being whisked away by a time-travelling stranger to be particularly compelling. Etta in her normal life came across with a vaguely Mary Sue vibe, extraordinary musical abilities being one of the most Mary Sue characteristics out there. As the plot doesn't begin until Etta is kidnapped and thrown back in time, the first discovery of her ability to time-travel, the flimsy modern-day life is somewhat understandable when you consider how much of the novel needs to be devoted to explaining and exploring the time-travel aspect. If I had felt more of an initial connection to Etta and her family (her mother, the mysterious Rose, and her mentor, Alice) I would have been more invested in the story from the start, though. Passenger could have benefitted from a some more time to introduce Etta and her personal history before the adventure began - I definitely felt like I needed more time to connect to Etta in her normal life and given how integral Rose and Alice are to the story I wanted those relationships to be given more depth upfront. But the story that is set in motion very quickly is so captivating that this is forgivable.
Once Etta starts on her journey around the world through time I was completely swept away. She first arrives in 18th-century America and wakes up on a ship with her captor Sophia, who is perhaps my favourite character in the book after Nicholas (I found Sophia to be much more interesting than Etta - her toughness and intensity felt more real than Etta's show of strength upon facing the violence on the ship's deck). The ship is under attack from a privateering vessel, enter Nicholas the privateering captain who commandeers the ship in order to deliver Sophia and Etta to the patriarch of the most powerful time-travelling family, Cyrus Ironwood. This world of the Ironwoods and early America was immediately more intriguing. I was riveted by the tension between the Ironwoods and Nicholas, complicated by their shared bloodline across the racial divide, and the mysterious history of the prominent time-travelling families. I found the insta-love between Etta and Nicholas to be much less riveting, but as their relationship developed I began to enjoy it more.
Alexandra Bracken's writing was what elevated my overall enjoyment of Passenger from these drawbacks. There was some heavy-handed diversity messages at times, but I found it quite admirable that she tackled race issues head-on as she sent her characters to different times and places where prejudices and even laws encoded society with bigotry toward minorities. It would have been easier to write a book about time-travel that glossed over the unpleasant truths about society in earlier times. Bracken writes with great attention to detail and a brazen honesty. She has written some wonderfully beautiful lines worth underlining and the writing gave such life to each time and place that I never wanted to leave each one, until they had passed on to the next amazing setting and that was brought to life before me.
I'm most certainly looking forward to Wayfarer (Goodreads, to be released January 2017), especially after that ending and the prospect of more Nicholas, Etta, and Sophia.