For some reason I thought this book involved a violin player on a sea voyage from New York to India. No, I have no idea where I got this idea, though apparently I did actually read the book description at some point because I don't know where else I would have gotten the violin player part from.
Years ago, I read an absolutely lovely book by Bracken called Brightly Woven. I read it at Borders and liked it so much I went back and read it again. People like me are why Borders went out of business, I imagine--I've become much better about purchasing the books since that time (though having a grown-up job certainly helps in that respect as well). I haven't read Bracken's first series that followed up on Brightly Woven (which has since gone out of print; I've had to order a used copy to finally add it to my collection); that series tended towards dystopian, which I just haven't been feeling. But Passenger... Look at the cover! It's gorgeous. The city in the bottle, the reflection of the ship beneath, the promise of travel and whimsy and magic. And the book involves time travel that actually seems to be well-thought-out, a true rarity in the genre! It was just too intriguing to pass up, especially as the second book has just come out.
The story here follows Etta, who is a teenage violinist on the verge of her big debut when there's a disaster on stage and she finds herself suddenly swept off to another time, with her mentor dead and her mother kidnapped into the bargain. Waking up on a ship during the American Revolution, Etta's world is turned upside-down when she finds out she's a traveler, able to pass between times, and that she has to decipher a series of clues her mother left her about the location of a mysterious astrolabe that can actually create new passages through time--and if she doesn't find it on a certain timeline, her mother's life will be in danger. She also finds herself partnered with Nicholas, a reluctant member of the notorious time-traveling Ironwood family and a freed slave. There's immediate chemistry between them, but both of them have additional motives they're hiding from the other.
This was a delightful book. It's so hard to do time travel well, and I think that Bracken managed it. She put a set of rules in place and, so far, they've held. Her time-travelers can't run into themselves; the passages won't allow someone into a time that they already occupy, so travelers keep journals of times they've already been to in order to enable future travel. This also plays into why Etta has to retrieve the astrolabe; she's a "blank slate" who's never left her own time, meaning that she can take pretty much any passage and be okay. There's not a lot of explanation as to how the passages actually work, but maybe we'll get some of that in the second book? Additionally, it's pretty much impossible to create time paradoxes in this. There's a bit of the characters thinking through how one might go, which shows that Bracken is aware of the paradox peril, but she mostly avoids it by introducing another mechanic: the shifting of timelines. Travelers are able to change the past, but it shifts the entire timeline going forward. They can't erase themselves or other travelers, though there's no word on if they can essentially "erase" other, non-time-traveling folk. Rather, a traveler whose path is disrupted a by a timeline shift in the past is thrown to the last common year between the old line and the new, and has to figure out where to go from there--a mechanic that introduces a second antagonist group, the Thorns, who have been disconnected from the times in which they rightfully belong by repeated timeline shifts instigated by the Ironwoods.
Additionally, I really liked Nicholas and Etta as a couple. Their love isn't instant, but it is quite fast, which I didn't adore; I think Bracken could have let their attraction develop over a longer period of time. But I still think they worked well together. They did see each other as partners, even when they were secretly working at cross-purposes, and when they found out those purposes, each managed to keep their emotions in check because they recognized that they both had been hiding things. And then there's the bonus: they're an interracial couple. This is so rare in fiction in general, both on the page and on the screen, for no apparent reason. And Nicholas is of mixed-race, which is also rare. And his racial background is important to his character and background, particularly given his native time, but it doesn't completely define him and he's definitely much more than a token character. I'm looking forward to seeing more of him, and him with Etta, in the second book, and am curious about how their ultimate fates, together or apart, will play out.
One thing I didn't like here was the riddles. The riddles themselves were fine, and took Nicholas, Etta, and their pursuers to a wide variety of places and times that aren't frequently explored in young adult fiction, which I liked. The reason that Etta could solve them and others couldn't also made sense, and I liked how Bracken worked in the setup for that. But then, Etta and Nicholas turn out to be extraordinarily good riddle solvers. They flit from one to the other and even when they make a mistake, they figure it out right away and are immediately on to the correct solution. This seemed a little unrealistic to me--and yes, I am discussing realism in a book that involves a time-traveling violinist. The way that Etta could immediately fix on what her mother meant, out of all the things her mother must have told her over the course of her life, just stretched my suspension of disbelief a bit too much.
But, ultimately, I liked the book. It comes to a stunning ending, one that's really setting Etta up for a challenge in the second book--she's going to have to completely rearrange her worldview to prevail over the forces aligned against her. There also seems to be a redemption arc coming up for an antagonist, which is always promising; I love a good redemption arc. This was a strong first book that stands on its own but also sets up the second one well, which is absolutely ideal. And it's a time travel book that works which is so unusual! There are a few weaknesses, but overall a very good book indeed.
4.5 stars out of 5!