Friday 22 April 2016


Book review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

I owe a big thanks to Booktube for flailing all over Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, as it was released in the US a few months prior to the UK and the hugely positive reviews I've come across since is what got me interested in this book in the first place. It's crazy to think that I read not just one complex and completely gripping time travel young adult novel with pirates within a single month but two (the other one being the brilliant The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig), yet there you have it. If this is the latest hype in YA fiction and more swashbuckling time travel novels will be released soon I'd be totally okay with that, because I'm hooked.

Etta is a 17-year-old violin prodigy in 21st New York City at the cusp of making her debut when a screaming sound interrupts her performance and makes it impossible to continue on playing. Just moments after leaving the stage Etta's world changes beyond recognition as the music teacher who is like a second mother to her is shot in front of her, and Etta herself is pulled away from the crime scene only to open her eyes and finding herself on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Not only is she far away from the city she calls her home, she's even further away than she initially thought when she discovers that during the time she was passed out she hasn't only travelled geographically, but also across centuries.

It soon becomes clear that she has been kidnapped by the Ironwoods, the last remaining family of time travellers. Unbeknownst to Etta, she too has time travel genes and as one of the few people across the ages who hasn't already travelled extensively and intervened with existing events she's deemed the only one suitable to track down the Astrolabe, a powerful object which Cyrus Ironwood, the head of the family, says was once stolen from him by Etta's mother. Threatening to kill Etta's mother if Etta doesn't co-operate, she has little choice but to obey. She's accompanied by Nicholas, a bastard Ironwood who wants to break free from the family himself, and together they follow the clues Etta's mother has scattered across the centuries from one passage to the next – in the hopes of finding the Astrolabe and escaping from Cyrus Ironwood's clutches once and for all. 

Let's first take a moment to admire the stunning cover, shall we? Not since A Thousand Pieces of You and Ten Thousands Skies Above You by Claudia Gray have I fallen quite so much for a book design, but clearly I love imaginative drawings of cityscapes with dashes of colour. And, just like the Firebird series, this book too has a mirror effect design where both halves actually represent different elements of the story, just squint your eyes and look closely at the water underneath the bottle. Very clever.

Speaking of clever, the time travel world-building within Passenger is insanely good. I'm sure we've all been inflicted by headache-inducing time travel stories, whether within the pages of a book or on the big screen, where the timelines didn't make sense or the concluding story just didn't add up, but that isn't the case in this novel at all. Alexandra Bracken's explanations for how timelines can be altered and what affect this has on those doing the altering, especially if it changes their past, makes complete sense. It's so logical, in fact, that I'm surprised this hasn't been the norm in time travel all along (it's not something I've come across before, at least).

Time travel aside, this is a damn good coming-of-age story with a kick-ass heroine celebrating diversity, and the best and worst of different parts of history. I loved making all these exciting discoveries alongside Etta about the time travelling families, the far-reaching powers of the Ironwoods and what exactly the capabilities are of the travellers, guardians and the simultaneously much-coveted and feared Astrolabe. Having Nicholas as the potential love interest, a black man born into slavery centuries earlier, was inspired and made it painfully aware that even in our much more progressive 21st century, having a person of colour as a main character in a contemporary setting is still too much of a rarity.

Because there is so much world building to be done initially, this is a fairly slow read to begin with. However, despite the pacing it never lost my interest and as Etta and Nick's search for the Astrolabe became more intense, the story accelerating into a fast-paced adventure that left me as the reader as breathless as the travelers racing against the clock across centuries and continents in an attempt to outrun not only those tailing them but ultimately time itself. Bringing together a cast of characters from across the ages and forcing them into situations alien to them shouldn't make sense but it totally did in Bracken's world. And the way they almost seemingly adapted to different eras, and communicated to past and future, had me in awe throughout. This is a novel that definitely has that wow factor.

That ending though. It is a testimony to how good this book is that for once I didn't want to throw it across the room in frustration because it finished smack-down in the middle of the action. Impeccably researched, cleverly put together, and hugely intriguing, Passenger is an action-packed coming-of-age adventure, which doesn't only focus on a physical journey throughout the ages but is also an inspirational voyage of diversity and empowerment.

Sophia (an Ironwood from centuries ago who is desperate for the gender equality that is normal in Etta's time): "How do you fight against a mountain? How do you move it when you don't even have a shovel?"
Etta: "Maybe you don't have to move it. Maybe you have to climb it."

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.

Passenger is published by Quercus and you can buy a copy from Foyles or your own preferred retailer.

Connect with Alexandra Bracken


Twitter: @alexbracken

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