Monday, April 18, 2016

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Bracken's latest novel, Passenger is historical fantasy that focuses on time travel. What if you belonged to a family with the ability to travel through time? What if you never knew this and ...

Seventeen-year-old Henrietta (Etta) Spencer is an aspiring violinist. Etta will be performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic this evening. Etta's debut had been delayed for years by her instructor, ninety-four year old Alice because of crippling stage fright. But in the past three years, Etta's stage fright diminished and she is anxious to start her solo career. Etta dropped everything else including her boyfriend Pierce to focus on her debut.

Etta's mom Rose is a mysterious woman who hasn't told her daughter much about her life. Etta knows her mother has travelled to Cambodia when she was eighteen and studied at the Sorbonne. She doesn't know her father.

At the concert hall while Etta prepares, Alice tells her she has an errand to do and quickly leaves. Etta will be performing on the Antonius, one of several Stradivarius violins in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts collection. When Alice doesn't return, Etta becomes anxious and sets out to find her.Unable to locate her  Etta decides to check the conservation wing where her mother has her office. Outside the office Etta hears Alice and her mother arguing, seemingly about whether Etta is ready to perform. Alice states that Etta is not ready for this but her mother believes she can handle it. Furious at what she's hearing,  Etta barges in and insists she will perform tonight. However, when she steps onto the stage  in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium to perform minutes later, Etta hears a terrible feedback noise and must be led offstage. One of the other prospective performers, a dark-haired girl named Sophia helps her out of the backstage area and into the Egyptian wing of the museum. Sophia leads her closer and closer to the source of the feedback. The two discover Alice shot and dying from a chest wound as they are approached by three men in tuxedos.  The next thing Etta knows, Sophia shoves her towards the high pitched sound and she finds herself waking up on board a ship being attacked by another.

Etta discovers that she is a prisoner on a ship, the Ardent, a British merchant ship which has just been disabled and boarded by the crew of a privateer, the Challenger, captained by Nathaniel Hall. The Challenger was authorized to act as a privateer and to legally hunt British ships. Nicholas Carter, a black man who is Hall's second-in-command, has been working the past three years for Lowe & Lowe Shipping traveling from the West Indies to the American colonies when he was approached by Cyrus Ironwood to intercept the Ardent and take the two women on board to New York City by September 21. Etta knows nothing of this at this time and when she awakes on the ship, she rushes on deck just as the battle for the Ardent has ended, terrified and confused. Nicholas and Captain Hall explain to Etta about the capture of the Ardent just as Sophia comes on deck. Sophia tells Captain Hall (who knows nothing of Nicholas's mission) that she and Etta are the Spencer sisters. Her familiar and rude way with Nicholas make Etta realize that the two know each other. With Nicholas now in command of the Ardent and Captain Hall returned to his own ship, Nicholas explains his mission to Sophia and Etta.

Alone in their quarters, Etta demands to know who Sophia is and an explanation of how she came to be on the ship. Sophia tells Etta that she has "traveled" to the eighteenth century and that Etta belongs to one of several families who have the ability to travel through time. This ability has been inherited from one of her parents, likely her mother Rose. Etta realizes that the argument she overheard at the Met was not about her musical debut but about whether or not she was ready to time travel. Sophia tells Etta that her mother's name is Rose Linden, that she had the ability to time travel and simply disappeared one day.

Sophia explains that their ancestors were able to take advantage of "tears in the fabric of time, pass through holes to emerge in a different era...They're like the natural crevices - fissures - you find around the world. The passages have always existed, and our families have always been able to find and use them." The passages could lead from Egypt in the time of the pharaohs to medieval Paris. Considering this, Etta believes her mother wanted her to know about her unique abilities and for her to travel.

Sophia tells Etta that she was born in 1910 Philadelphia, She explains to Etta that they traveled through a passage but when they arrived in this time Etta became unconscious. The only ship Sophia could gain passage on was bound for England so Cyrus Ironwood hired Nicholas and Captain Hall to capture the Ardent and take it to New York where they will meet him. Sophia reveals that Ironwood has used travelers to manipulate time to secure the Ironwood fortune and bring the other traveler families under his control. Grandfather has chosen 1776 as the year where he is based and where all travelers must travel from. There are less than one hundred travelers now. When they travel they observe the norms of each era, something Etta finds difficult when she attends dinner that night and experiences the racism towards blacks typical of the late eighteenth century.

Etta realizes that Sophia knows Nicholas Carter because he is also a traveler. As the illegitimate son of Cyrus's son Augustus, he has inherited the ability to travel. In conversation with Nicholas, Etta learns that Rose Linden was "the only traveler to successfully outwit Ironwood", stealing something of his and disappearing. Nicholas tells her that Rose broke the heart of Augustus Ironwood, Cyrus Ironwood's heir. Nicholas promises to help Etta if in fact she is being used in some way to harm Rose. Etta and Sophia are escorted to New York City after they come ashore near Oyster Bay, off Long Island Sound.They are taken to the Dove Tavern opposite the Royal Artillery Park where they meet Cyrus Ironwood, Sophia's grandfather.

Cyrus tells Etta that he met her mother while they were sightseeing in Renaissance Italy. He arranged for her to marry his son Augustus but she disappeared suddenly seventeen years ago. Cyrus shows Etta her mother's travel journal which travelers keep to avoid crossing paths with themselves in another time. He also shows her a letter written by Virgil Ironwood to his brother Augustus about a new passage in Nassau, Bahamas that put him in Manhattan 2015 as they hunt for the item Cyrus is after. In Manhattan 2015 Virgil discovers Henrietta Spencer who looks just like her mother (the missing) Rose Linden. Virgil is happy to see them well settled. Both Virgil and Augustus were dead within the year. Cyrus tells Etta that he needs her to steal back what her mother stole from him.

Cyrus reveals that through the influence of his agents, Etta was asked to perform at the museum as a way to trick her into traveling back to his time. Sophia was sent to determine if Etta was able to sense the time passage and was therefore a traveler. Cyrus believes that Etta's mother Rose Linden stole an astrolabe which belonged to his ancestors. His search through various eras has proved fruitless and cost him his direct heirs.Rose claimed it belonged to the Linden family but Cyrus insists it does not. The astrolabe is special because "it can examine a passage and inform the bearer of the destination and time period on the other side..." Cyrus tells her he wants it to protect travelers who are fewer now and who risk their lives using uncharted passages. He tells Etta he has been searching for some time and has lost two sons, Augustus and Wilbur and a grandson, Julian in his attempt to track it down. He also gives Etta a letter an agent found in their home that was written by Rose to Etta in a special code. He wants her to decipher the letter because he believes it holds clues to the location of the astrolabe. Cyrus gives Etta until Sept 30 to locate the astrolobe.

Although Etta recognizes the code, she hides this from Cyrus who tells her she will decipher it before beginning her search. She agrees to help Cyrus believing if she can find the astrolabe she will be able to find her mother and save Alice. To ensure that Etta does not trick him, Cyrus pressures Nicholas into accompanying Etta on her search in exchange for revoking the ban on his traveling and giving Nicholas all of his plantation holdings in 1776. But will Etta be able to outwit Cyrus at his own game long enough to save her life and all that she holds dear?

Discussion

Alexandra Bracken's novels are characterized by complicated storylines and Passenger is no different. The main storyline is gradually revealed against the backdrop of 1776 Manhattan and Etta Spencer's abrupt encounter with Nicholas who is of mixed white/black race.

Bracken reveals much of the backstory in bits and pieces throughout the novel. And that backstory is complicated, so much so that it is unlikely readers will remember all the details when the next novel is published. So here is a basic summary that will contain spoilers.

There were four families, the Ironwood, Jacaranda, Linden and Hemlock families who were time travelers. Although at first these families worked together much like clans with each having its role. as record keepers, financiers and shifters who checked the stability of the time passages. Eventually there was a falling out. Cyrus Ironwood's first wife, Minerva was murdered by Roman Jacaranda after Cyrus was implicated in a conspiracy to gain control of the travelers. This started a war between the four families. Cyrus eliminated almost all of the other families and became the Grand Master. Rose and her grandfather were the last Lindens and they preferred to stay out of the fray. Rose became part of a group call refugees - people without a home when their timeline was changed. While the remnants of the Jacaranda and Hemlock families joined with the Ironwoods, some became "Thorns" people who are trying to restore their futures.

Initially each of the four families had an astrolabe. Three were lost or destroyed. When Rose disappeared so did the remaining astrolobe. Although Cyrus tells Etta that it is his, Alice in the 1940 era tells Etta and Nicholas it belongs to the Linden family. She also tells them that the astrolabe can create new passages and is therefore much more powerful than Cyrus has led them to believe. It could give whoever possesses it, the ability to control time. The Thorns want it so they can create passages to the past in an attempt to return to the original timeline.

Cyrus married Minerva but hid her in the past for her own safety. Her location was discovered by the other families who waited for a year when there was no direct passage and then murdered her. This meant that Cyrus had no way of preventing her murder. Cyrus's second wife produced two sons, Wilbur and Augustus. Augustus was intending to marry  Rose when she suddenly disappeared.  Augustus spent years searching for her and became increasingly troubled. He raped the Ironwood family slave and fathered Nicholas in 1757. Captain Hall and his wife, now part of the Ironwood family, purchased Nicholas and his life improved greatly from that point on.

With the hunt on for the last astrolabe, Cyrus having lost Wilbur and Augustus, sent his grandson Julian along with Nicholas to search. When Cyrus almost located the astrolobe, Rose moved it and hid it. She and Professor Linden did not destroy it.Rose believed that one day Cyrus would likely come close again to finding the astrolobe and she wrote a coded letter to Etta. From her childhood, Etta was taught the coding system used in the letter so when Cyrus shows her the letter Etta is able to decipher it. She believes that the first clue is a passage near the Elgin Marbles.

Terrace of the Elephants Angkor Thom

As Etta and Nicholas search for the astrolobe they travel from 1940 London and the Blitz where they encounter a young Alice to the lush Cambodian jungle and the ruins of Angkor Wat. From 1880 Paris and the gorgeous Medici Fountain to the blowing sands of Damascus, Etta and Nicholas struggle to follow the clues Rose has laid out to find the hidden astrolabe.But they soon discover that they are being pursued by two men whose identities are not known.

Set against Etta and Nicholas's hunt for the missing astrolobe is their blossoming romance. In Nicholas's natural time of 1776, such a romance is forbidden by law but as they travel through various eras their relationship deepens quickly. This sets up an intense conflict for Nicholas. He has signed a contract with Cyrus to bring back the astrolobe in exchange for his freedom. But gradually he feels the temptation to leave his natural time and be with Etta who treats him as a partner rather than as a servant.
"Could he kiss her, knowing that he was on the verge of betraying her and ensuring that the astrolabe got back to Ironwood?
Could he kiss her, knowing that she must return to her time and he must remain in his? The vilification they would face if she were to come with him back to his time, and they were unable to deal with the cruel laws of the colonies..."
Etta begins to have what Nicholas believes is a "dangerous" effect on him leading him to think about things he's buried for some time: to leave his era and to keep the astrolabe and travel with Etta to different centuries until they were safe. Gradually his thinking changes.  "...he felt the touch of a changing wind blowing through him, pushing him toward a different path. All of these things he desired, he could have; if not on a ship, then by seeking out the passages that could carry him where he wanted to go. And he would her: the lady with whom he wished to travel."

Etta too becomes conflicted over their blossoming relationship. She believes part of the attraction is that their relationship seems impossible because they are from two different eras. Etta also struggles with the morality of time travel. When they arrive at her mother's room in Damascus she and Nicholas discover  a huge collection of relics from different eras. Etta asks, "...Is there a point to it, other than to amuse themselves?..." Etta questions why the passages were made and believes their original function has been corrupted.

Medici Fountain  built by Marie de Medici
Passenger is an intriguing read but it sometimes gets bogged down in its own story. There's simply so much detail about the time travelers it's hard to keep track of all the information. However on the positive side, the story itself is very interesting and engages the reader from the beginning. Etta, finding herself in a very different world from her natural time, never seems to blink. She's determined to return to her time, continue on with her performance career and to save her beloved Alice. Bracken could have left out the sometimes lengthy descriptive romance passages which divert from the storyline.

Passenger is huge novel, just short of 500 pages but fans of fantasy and adventure who love a large dose of romance will enjoy this latest offering by Bracken.

Book Details:

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
Los Angeles: Hyperion    2016
486 pp.

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