I begin this review by offering Alexandra Bracken, author of Passenger, my most sincere congratulations, because she has achieved something I didn’t think was possible. Time travel is my reading Achilles Heel; I just do not understand it. I like to think this is because writers don’t actually bother with the details which would make time travel make sense, rather than this whole mental block stemming from my lifelong phobia of science. Passenger is somehow the fourth time travel- based YA novel I’ve read in 2016 (seriously, what is the deal with that?) and, in this book, Bracken has managed to create a time travel concept which I actually understand. I’m not sure if you can grasp how momentous this is.
Passenger starts in modern-day New York, with violin prodigy Etta about to play in an important concert. One thing leads to another, and she ends up on a ship in the 18th century. This always happens to me when I try to play the violin too, so I sympathise. One complaint I have with this book is that Etta doesn’t seem overly concerned by this; I can’t help but feel that most people’s reaction to suddenly being at sea two hundred years earlier would be to demonstrate at least a little surprise, but Etta is clearly just not that easy to shock. The last two time travel books I read – The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry and The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood – both featured teen protagonists deeply traumatised by their newfound abilities; Etta could clearly show them a thing or two about rolling with the chronologically confusing punches.
Once onboard the ship, Etta is thrown into the company of Nicholas, a freed slave/time traveller desperate for his own ship, as well as the mind-blowingly awesome Sophia, who is stroppy, snotty and seasick, and all-round quality entertainment. It seemed to me that they were on this ship for a really long time, during which I became slightly bored (this is why I will never go on a cruise), but things got much more exciting when Nicholas escorted Etta and Sophia to their date with destiny… I mean, rendezvous with a creepy old dude who’s basically the king of time travellers. There’s a plot twist late on involving said creepy dude which I called from the beginning, making me a genius and, consequently, very happy. I love being right. He sends Etta and Nicholas off in search of a Maguffin after threatening to kill everyone, and then they go on a world tour. It’s fun. There can’t be many books where you end up picturing yourself in the French Revolution and then also in Cambodia and I really enjoyed the frantic time traveling of the second half of the book.
I was also unexpectedly intrigued by the more political aspects of Passenger; as a black man, Nicholas’ opportunities are severely restricted in his own time, while, as a woman, Sophia’s are imposed on her by powerful men, causing her to yearn for some autonomy and independence. Etta’s growing understanding of all this, as well as her own privilege in being born in a relatively easy time period and place, adds something really interesting to the novel.
Overall, I wasn’t sure about Passenger during the first half, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Alexandra Bracken’s writing style is immersive and quite lovely at times, and her characters are compelling enough to ensure I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series, Wayfarer, when it comes out.