Title: The River of No Return
Author: Bee Ridgway
Other Reviews for This Author: None
I review a variety of genres on this blog - romance, young adult, historical fiction, non-fiction, urban fantasy - but am occasionally aghast at some of the things I get sent for review consideration. Sometimes, the genre just feels completely out of my zone of giving a crap. Others, it's because the book just seems to badly represent one of the genres that I like. The River of No Return wasn't one of those bad requests. It was one of a third category - the category of the book that combines several of those genres in a way that would either appeal to me or make me bored just thinking about it. Luckily, the genres that Ridgway incorporates in her debut novel make for very entertaining reading in blurb form and in book form. Historical fiction, genre romance, and adventure stories all get meshed together in an epic story that is satisfying but still leaves a world of possibilities in its final pages.
Fighting in a Napoleonic war circa 1812, Nick Falcott was faced with death and survived, but not because he was brave, cunning, or stronger than his opponent. Nick Falcott reflexively traveled through time using an ability that he had no awareness of. Time travel. Impossible, yet Nick awoke in 2003, his body in a bed in modern London. A man by the name was there to explain Nick's improbable situation - that of the time travel, the body's fight-or-flight reaction, and the international society in place whose goal was to nurture the time travelers that jumped forward within the river of time. Nick gets placed in this organization long enough to go through their cultural adaptation classes, the goal to have him able to live in modern society at a functional level with periodic stipends provided by the society to ensure a good standard of living.
The society is about far more than getting people like Nick to live normal lives in their new time streams. On a higher level, the society has its secrets and motives that go beyond assimilation. Known as the Guild, this group of time travelers has a reputation throughout the time stream. Reputations breed rivalries, and rivalries breed enemies. Nick gets recruited to go back to the time he came from, or thereabouts, in order to prevent the enemies of the Guild from gaining access to an important item known as the Talisman. The Talisman could be the key to disrupting the flow of the river of time, causing the future to slowly disappear. With time travelers unable to travel past a certain date, it seems more and more likely that something is causing the demise of time itself.
1815 sees the precocious girl Julia Percy in an awful predicament. Her beloved grandfather has just passed away and the estate has been taken over by a spiteful, bitter member of their extended family. Julia's economic circumstances are unfortunately tied to this detestable creature. While he has definite control over the estate, he does not have control over Julia's abilities. Julia discovers that she can manipulate time, perhaps in a way similar to her grandfather, and it dawns on her that her grandfather may very well have wanted to protect that ability from falling into the wrong hands. Little does Julia know that her ability is so much more powerful than she has ever anticipated, and that said ability will lead her into the arms of Nicholaus Falcott and his own time-related journey.
Ridgway's debut novel is much larger in scope than I ever anticipated; the summary above is only the beginning of what this story promises. I think that my expectations were all over the place as a result - the book itself was primarily linked with historical romance plus time travel in my head, so I wasn't quite prepared for the larger-than-life scope that it encompassed. Even in YA stories about time travel, I don't think I've come across an attempt like this at telling the story from such a big view. Each of the characters is complex, slightly unlikable, and very human.
Nick is the hero and is the character we see the most of. Though the story opens with Julia being focused on in the third person perspective, Nick's point of view is the one that we see most often. His story opens in a way that could be very ho-hum; the dropping-into-an-unknown-organization thing has the potential to be a major info dump extravaganza. While not the fastest part of the story or the character arc, it does open up Nick's character and show the reader a bit of what they can expect. Nick's personality comes across as one of a fairly agreeable person that gets caught up in some very unagreeable things, and he struggles with that sense of cowardice and lack of adventure throughout the book as his friends disappear, seemingly because they are much more forward and blunt with their emotions and suspicions than he is. The growth of his character throughout the story as he gets caught up in the gray world of the Guild and his romance with Julia is entertaining and exciting; Nick's character feels a lot more dynamic when the story concludes and shows that he has the potential to be someone who can change the world, something that gets paralleled with his abilities in time manipulation. Despite all of the growth, I had trouble connecting with Nick throughout some of the story because of this non-confrontational nature. He's offset by many characters that aren't afraid to be brutal or over-the-top in order to get their way. We see people like Julia and Arkady that are constantly at odds with one or more people around them, people that have definitive faults but also definitive strengths. Nick comes across as less three-dimensional in comparison to these characters. Possibly because he's the hero, possibly because he just gets overshadowed by Julia. At the end of the day, he has a lot of potential that's shown in his reexamination of his place in the Guild and of its morals, and I think that he'll become a lot more dynamic as this story expands and shows its scope beyond the time period.
One thing that I did love about Nick was his interactions with his family. Specifically, his sister Clare. Ridgway does the cultural confusion of time travel quite nicely. It's never as simple as a character getting used to foreign things for plain humor, though there is a level of humor in how Nick interacts with objects and people of different times due to the narrative's tone. Nick's concerns about his sister are rich and show a lot of his character in a subtle manner. On one hand, he understands that 1815 has certain expectations of women, especially women his sister's age, yet he struggles throughout the book to reconcile that with the knowledge of women's rights and civil liberties that he gained while living in the 21st century for ten years. Then there is the further privilege that he shows of the class that he grew up in up until 1813 when he traveled through time. Nick struggles with these character perspectives throughout the book. He grew up in a conservative era with a lot of money, then matured in an era where he could witness the value of his previous position without so much bias and clouding, and then went back to the era that brought out his old habits that conflicted with his new ones. Clare is just the best example of this because she has so many great discussions with Nick about economics, politics, and gender in the time period that truly give the reader an idea of who these two characters are as people within the context of their time. Clare is strong in a way that Julia isn't because she understands how to use her position in the family to manipulate things to her desires without going against major social convention. Nick is strong because he can use the things that he's learned to better appreciate the women in his life.
You may suspect that I like Julia Percy's character, more so even than Nick's. And your perceptions would be spot on. Julia Percy is my spirit animal. She's a female character in alternate history (though not quite so alternate as...altered...) that is entirely too modern for her time but doesn't come across as being overly modern, if that makes sense. Julia was raised by her grandfather and has a free spirit as a result, but she still maintains some of the qualities that we commonly associate with in regards to women in this period of time. She is surprised when Nick is so bold as to physically touch her in sensual ways. She is surprised at a lot of things that Nick does - as bold and smooth-tongued as he is in front of Julia, he still comes across as unconventional in his courtship. The novel's plot revolves around Nick and Julia being unaware that they share time traveling powers. Julia also knows next to nothing about the Guild, instead discovering her powers in a way that's more of a personal journey than an overreaching story arc like Nick's. Because of this, she gets in situations that make her seem ignorant or less knowledgeable because of her gender, yet she then proves that she is intelligent by figuring things out on her own anyway. Even though Julia does not know the extent of Nick's dealings with the Guild (or what the Guild truly is), she comes across as a girl that could deal with the facts and move forward smartly. Ridgway respects Julia in this way and makes her story, though more diverting and less 'epic' than Nick's in many ways, just as appealing. I was constantly excited for Julia's chapters because of the interest in seeing her powers develop; reading her theories about time travel and Nick's place in her life (and the possibilities surrounding him and Arkady) was so much more enjoyable from a reader perspective than I anticipated. Julia's character is definitely the one derived from the historical romance genre that The River of No Return samples from, and that made her character a comfortable, whimsical voice to slip into after Nick's heavier philosophizing.
The cast of characters is huge and this barely covers it. There are some villains, some helpful allies that show their faces much later in the book, and some background characters that aid the story in nice little ways. Readers will find themselves engaged with most of them, though the cast is much more concentrated in the middle when the dynamic between Nick, Arkady, Julia, and Clare gets developed prior to the development of the Guild's story arc. As a result, some of the later characters feel less touched upon or more outwardly humorous, more as a way to relieve tension than to add to the depth of the story. There is also a habit where some characters go on heavy discusssions involving the nature and philosophy of time; these discussions are intellectually stimulating and fascinating, but can feel a little too dense and wall-of-text for a story that, when at its best, moves briskly.
Ridgway's construction of her world is fantasy over science fiction. Alternative history, time travel done as a magical power released in a life-or-death situation that later gets honed as an ability, potentially expanding to time travel in different directions. Ridgway attempts to cover her bases with the world building by really getting into it, and she avoids a lot of logistical holes because of the world building. Her characters clearly have to work at studying other languages to communicate, though the communication is mostly between time travelers that would be able to handle anachronistic behavior without much trouble. The cultural boundaries are seen as something difficult to overcome but not impossible; characters maintain keepsakes from other time periods, though they don't discuss how that could potentially dilute the river of time (and, yes, the book does describe it as a river based on the Guild's theories.) Ridgway's society felt very constructed and was artfully used as a way to make her characters question themselves. Who is right and who is wrong? Is there justice in blaming those who may not have done anything wrong because of suspicion and ulterior motive? What morals are there are in messing up the time stream in an attempt to fix what people theorize being broken? I loved this world because it was so based on the lack of assurance of the characters. Ridgway has so much mystery in the time travel that's left to be awakened, and the historical settings are lush, rich, and researched. The reader can easily tell that Ridgway knows what she's writing about but doesn't live just for the historical detail.
Debut novels often feel like a recipe that goes wrong the first time - the recipe that has so many ingredients that lead to forgotten ones (sometimes important ones, sometimes the smallest spices), the recipe is too simple and boring, like toast, or the recipe is just a smoking hot mess of char and agony that makes you want to throw up. The River of No Return is of the first order. Ridgway's book has a crap ton of ingredients in it. Ridgway's writing is very solid, engaging and occasionally poetic without drowning in literary self-actualization, and it manages to combine all of the necessary elements in a way that doesn't feel feel like a hodgepodge of all of the individual ideas. I loved the writing in this regard, but the pacing of the story fell into question more than a few times. There are sections of this book that are undeniably slow. It's not a story that's meant to be short, but I felt that there were sections that just capitalized too much on the philosophical and the historical rather than the characters and their places in the plot. That being said, the book does have a much brisker pace towards the end that makes the occasionally ongoing description enjoyable. The nice thing about The River of No Return is that it's a book that, once you get into it, you really get into it. The ending was exactly what it needed to be. Some things tie up, some things don't, and it leaves you with the notion that Ridgway has only just begun to give the reader an inkling of this world.
I want more. While not a perfect read for me, there's something about this book that is incredibly satisfying. Nick's character and the slow pacing both bog down the beginning, but as the story progresses and Ridgway starts intertwining her various genres, plot threads, and characters, there is a special kind of alchemy that comes together and makes it all addictive. The River of No Return is an intelligent debut novel with writing that captures the romantic history of time travel without skimping on the plot and the action. Nick and Julia are a couple that I want to follow through another book or two at least. There's something about this world that suggests limitless possibilities, and what better way to open a series than with an infinite amount of possibility?
Cover: This cover is eye-catching, but I don't think it really meshes the elements of romance, fantasy, history, and action that I associate with the story. The cover suggests more of a historical novel in a very cold region that has lots of depressing things going on. That ain't this book.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher and author for review (Thank you, Bee and Dutton!!)