Monday, April 21, 2014

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

World building is one of the trickiest aspects of writing fantasy and science fiction. Books are often front-loaded with detail—sometimes this detail is essential for understanding later plot developments but sometimes it’s just there because the writer was so enamored of her own creativity that she wasn’t a good judge of which elements were ornamental rather than strictly necessary. It’s no wonder that some readers find navigating a fantasy world off-putting or not worth the trouble.

Bee Ridgway, in The River of No Return, walks a fine line between these two extremes but in the end succeeds nicely. The book (a literary time travel feminist romance mashup) throws a lot of detail at you right out of the gate and I found myself, in the first 50 pages or so, thinking “Do I have to remember all this?” (Kind of the reader’s version of “Is this going to be on the test?”) The answer is yes, but it’s worth it: Ridgway’s details are all crucial to understanding what happens to Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, when, just as he is about to die in the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, he jumps forward in time to 2003 where, with the help of a mysterious organization called the Guild, he lives for the next ten years as Nick Davenant, a hipster organic farmer in Vermont. It turns out Nick has a special ability that enables him to swim around in the river of time (while the rest of us idiots are just carried along in the current). This skill qualifies him for admission to the Guild, a super-secret club for time travelers.

Threaded throughout Nick’s story is that of another time traveler from Regency England: Julia Percy, ward of the recently deceased fifth Earl of Darchester. Julia’s powers exceed those of all but the most practiced Guild members. Not only can she swim around in the river, she can stop it from flowing all together. But in the beginning of the story Julia is untrained; she uses her nascent skills mostly to fend off the unwelcome attentions of her new guardian, the Earl’s foul and abusive nephew. Julia and Nick meet when Nick is drafted by the Guild for an undercover operation wherein he must return to his old life as the Marquess to discover who is threatening the Guild’s sovereignty. Romance ensues but with a twist: Nick is now a 21st century guy who finds the societal strictures on women to be degrading and counterproductive. When protofeminist Nick meets superpowerful Julia, sparks fly. I loved it.

Ridgway includes all sorts of wink-and-nod references to traditional Regency romance tropes while turning the whole genre on its head. If that isn’t enough, she also offers sly interstitial commentary on the time travel conceit. If you’ve read/watched anything else in the genre you’ll pick this up. She even takes on that well-worn cliché about using time travel to change the future (all discussions of which now include killing Hitler), in this delightful conversation between Nick and some Guild leaders, when they warn him that he won’t be able to alter anything important when he returns to his own time. Alice says: 
“You will only be able to change the smallest things, things that get subsumed back into the big push of the river without making a difference.”

“No killing Hitler,” Nick said.

“No killing Hitler. No giving Queen Liliuokalani back her Hawaii, no saving Malcolm X, or Joan of Arc, or the princes in the tower. But smaller things—things that are just normal, everyday stuff of life? Those things are perfectly possible.” …

Arkady slammed his hands down on his thighs. “Why when we talk about time travel do we always have to kill Hitler or not kill Hitler! It is to make Hitler a commonplace! The point is this. You are small and the river is big. Live, love, die, my priest. The river will roll on.”
Ridgway has recently released a prequel to The River of No Return, available as an e-book from Penguin and Amazon. It's called The Time Tutor and is only 90 pages and costs $2.99. I'm definitely going to read this. I'm not surprised to find this—it was clear from the ending of The River of No Return that Ridgway was setting us up for a lot more to come. Which of course takes us back to the world-building discussion. After all, if you go to all the trouble to construct a world where the rules about time are all different, it seems wasteful not to keep using it, no?

(Book 6, 2013)


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