Passenger: A perilous voyage through time

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Passenger by Alexandra Bracken fantasy book reviewsPassenger by Alexandra Bracken

Whilst the concept of time travel itself is nothing groundbreaking, a time-travelling violin virtuoso and a swashbuckling sailor from different centuries is. Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger opens in present-day New York where our protagonist, young violinist Etta Spencer, is on the verge of making her solo debut. But mid-performance she is dragged through a ‘passage’ and finds herself in the midst of a battle between two ships in the Atlantic… in 1776.

Enter Nicholas Carter, an 18th century privateer born as the result of a white man’s rape of an African slave, who is tasked with delivering Etta to his employer. Said employer is the formidable Cyrus Ironwood, head of a powerful time-travelling family who intends to make sure that he has control over all of the historical families that are able to time travel. Ironwood has captured Etta so that she can obtain a time-travelling device called an astrolabe that her mother has hidden from the Ironwood family — oh, and her mother has kept secret from her daughter that she, too, possesses the gift of time travel, and is also most probably from a different century entirely to the one Etta has grown up in.

Thus the scope and breadth of this tale becomes apparent, with the criss-crossing intentions of sprawling families setting the backdrop for more teen-angst-like themes of identity, belonging, and love. At the heart of Passenger lies the relationship between Nicholas and Etta, whose conflicting motivations are kept from one another. Nicholas must ensure the astrolabe is returned to Ironwood to buy his freedom, but in doing so he betrays Etta. Etta, on the other hand, intends to use Nicholas to obtain the astrolabe and jump forwards in time to rescue her mother. Whilst the trappings of the story may seem complicated, its core is relatively simple: Etta and Nicholas (inevitably) fall in love and must decide whether to sacrifice each other or their futures.

The story flits through space and time, from pre-industrial Manhattan, 17th century Angkor Wat, London in WWII, and Damascus. It is a truly enchanting travelogue that vividly evokes time and place, if at times the pit stops can seem a little rushed. But the novel’s real strength is its exploration of the racism and prejudice that both Etta and Nicholas experience. Born of an African slave, Nicholas’ position in 18th century society is a lowly one, and he suffers people’s prejudices in many eras. Etta’s empowerment as a 21st century young woman is stripped from her as she travels back in time, and she is astounded both by how little regard there is for women and the racism Nicholas experiences.

Tackling big themes, locations that span both continents and centuries, and a compelling love story at its heart ensures that Passenger is deserving of the buzz it’s receiving. The scope of its cast means it’s more epic in feel than your run-of-the-mill YA adventure story, and with a thrilling pace to boot, readers will find themselves racing to the end.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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  1. I’m glad to hear that Bracken tackled issues like Etta’s displacement in time; a 21st-century woman couldn’t expect the same treatment in, say, the 18th century, but it seems like too many authors gloss over that wrinkle.

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