Every once in a while I will read a book which I am certain is destined to be a big hit. This is such a book. It has everything a YA reader desires – romance, adventure, epic scope, feisty heroine, supportive hero. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about movie rights before very long.
When we meet Etta Spencer we learn several things in rapid succession. The first is that her relationship with her mother blows both hot and cold. On the one hand, her mom leaves love notes in her lunch boxes or overnight bags or violin cases. On the other hand, in real life, her mother treats her with “a tight, cool silence” and no longer smiles when she hears her play. That second fact is important since Etta is a violin prodigy with numerous competition wins under her belt. In fact, when we meet her, Etta is about to perform at a private fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The event begins to unravel for Etta before it even starts. She hears her mother arguing adamantly with her violin instructor about Etta’s readiness for the occasion. While the instructor seems to feel Etta is in no way ready, her mother is insistent that she is and that she must go on. Etta furiously bursts in to the argument, fights with the instructor – who has been more friend than teacher to her – and then flounces off to begin the performance. When a series of discordant notes throw Etta’s playing off, she is surprised to find that she and one other girl seem to be the only ones hearing them. Deserting the stage to follow the sound, Etta finds herself in the middle of a gun battle during which her instructor is shot. The next thing she knows is that she is shoved through some weird kind of portal, becomes sick, and wakes up on board a ship where yet another battle is taking place.
Nicholas Carter has spent the best part of his life at sea. The sea had been there for him as a young boy when he had lost the only home and family he had ever known. The sea was there for him when he returned from a glamorous job on land which had promised adventure and riches, but delivered only heartbreak. The sea is about to share her bounty with him once more, this time in the form of a prize ship which will finally give him the money to purchase his own vessel and truly be independent of the Ironwood family. But first he must capture the ship and take the two female passengers onboard to the head of the Ironwood clan. He expects the two are ladies of quality who belong to the family and need safe passage to get home, which is why he is surprised to see one of the them on the deck acting like a wild woman after they board.
Etta is utterly confused by the battle, the rolling wooden ship, everything about this place which is so clearly not home. After a few adventurous moments on the deck she is returned to her cabin with the mysterious girl from the concert, the only other person who could hear the discordant notes caused by the portal. The girl’s name is Sophia and the tale she and Nicholas tell between them would seem unbelievable if Etta wasn’t living it. She has traveled back to the year 1776 in order to retrieve something her mother had stolen from the powerful Ironwood family. If she ever wants to see her mother or her time again she must piece together the clues her mother left behind and find the powerful artifact. She has only days to do so.
Completely unprepared for such a task, Etta sets out to retrieve an item she has never seen, traveling across time, wars and continents to do so. Nicholas is by her side, serving as guide, teacher and most importantly, partner. But as they draw inexorably closer to their destination, the two form a bond that shakes them both to the core and threatens to destroy everything either has hoped to achieve by taking this perilous journey. But the loss of their hopes and dreams is not all that awaits them at the end of this road; they have been lied to and when the ultimate plan of the Ironwoods comes to light it is clear that it is not just their destinies at risk but the fate of the whole world.
I’ve been reading about the fate of humanity being saved by epic heroes/heroines since just about the time I first started reading. The template/structure has changed over the decades as plots go in and out of style, but the books tend to follow a pattern. This one very much follows the current popular YA pattern set by The Hunger Games books with its strong heroine, supportive hero and family-member-as-hostage plot.
Passenger does a great job of freshening those elements so that they are unique to the story and not just copies of the original. That is exactly what a genre book is supposed to do in my opinion – deliver something new while still providing the familiar. The author gets a gold star for her work there.
Also well done are the characters. We get to know Etta and Nicholas, who are both very likable and sympathetic, but there is also just enough mystery there to keep us watching them closely. I thoroughly expect both of them will throw some surprises at readers as the series continues.
Their romance was the first surprise to me; not only is it consummated (which doesn’t always happen in YA) but the speed with which it gained intensity came as a bit of a shock. Etta is attached to Nicholas very, very quickly and her feelings aren’t just of the “likes him a lot” variety. She seems to fall in love and feel she knows his very heart within a few chapters. Nicholas himself provides a nice balance to this in that he is determined to think through the relationship and its consequences. He has travelled through time before and is very much aware that a black man and white woman aren’t a welcome couple in many, many of the societies he has been to. He wrestles with the injustice of finding his perfect woman and having her not fit into the time and place in which he feels most at home. I appreciated having the conflict come from issues external to the relationship. They have some internal ones too but they don’t have a combative coupling and I am always thrilled when that happens.
So the plotting is good, the adventures interesting and the romance well done; why then isn’t the book a DIK? To be honest there were times when I just found it a bit of a slog. The adventures and angst were all good in and of themselves, but there were moments that I just wanted it to finish already. I also didn’t connect with the characters. I liked them well enough but I didn’t find myself caring very much about them; had the author needed to sacrifice either of them to move the plot along I would have felt fine with it. My final nitpick would be that on occasion the author would feel the need to have the characters espouse a certain stance on feminism or racism. It always confuses me when authors do this because I have to wonder exactly who they think their audience is. I don’t think the small percentage of people who read for entertainment are the chauvinistic racists they (the authors) apparently think we are. And if I were going to change my opinion on these issues I certainly wouldn’t do so because of the influence of a YA novel. So, in my opinion, this is always a waste of space.
I’ll add a note on a topic that isn’t really a flaw but can be a hot button issue for some – this is book one of a series and the ending is a complete cliffhanger. You’ve been warned.
Those quibbles aside – and they really are quibbles – Passenger is a well-executed, imaginative novel. If you are a fan of either Young Adult novels or time travel books or both, I would definitely recommend it.