Passenger by Alexandra Bracken


Passenger Series Book #1, Hyperion, 2016, 486 pgs.

Etta Spencer feels like she’s nothing sometimes. She’s quiet, shy, and anxious, and has almost no friends except for her violin teacher, Alice. She can’t even seem to catch her distant, glamorous mother’s attention half the time. But then, on the night of the most important violin recital of her life, Etta watches her one confidante die, gets dragged through a hole of light by a strange, snotty girl, and winds up in Revolutionary Era New York. There she meets the terrifying, scheming leader of the Ironwood family, Cyrus, and the kind and noble former slave, Nicholas, who has some connection to his family. There she finds out she can travel through time, like they can. As it turns out, her mother had reason for her distance. She’s one of the last members of the Lindens, rival Traveler family to the Ironwoods, and consequentially so is Etta. And Cyrus Ironwood has plans for both of them. Etta’s only chance for freedom may be a headlong chase through every time period she can get to, but she’s running blind, with no plan, no idea of what she’s actually searching for, and no knowledge of who she can really trust.

Novels like this are why I’m hesitant to give up on books early.

If I had only read the fist fifty pages of this book, I would have walked away thinking I absolutely hated it. It has all the hallmarks of something that’s just not for me: an aggressively pure lead, a heavy romance element that pops up before character development can really set in, and a lot of social commentary on a past era that never manages to shake its Twenty-first Century lens. Instead, as I worked my way through the novel, I found myself liking it more and more and can even say I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Not that this was perfect or anything. All of the things I listed up there? They’re still major problems for me, and when I say I started to like the book, I mean less that I ended up loving it and more that it gave me enough of what I wanted that it managed to compensate for the parts of it I really didn’t.

Actually, for those of you that have read Passenger, I can break what I liked and what I didn’t down really simply into neat chunks by character. Here we are, the tl;dr version of this review: Dear Ms. Bracken, more Nicholas and Sophia, and so, so much less Etta, please.

For my money, most of the problems I have with the novel come down to its lead. Etta is syrupy goody-goody, perfectly sheltered, and yet somehow endlessly resilient. She’s anxious and shy! But she never backs down from a fight and always stands up for what she believes in! When you try to shove all of those traits into one character they never actually feel like a real person to me, just some idealized emblem of goodness. Sweetness and light meets warrior spirit, in a way that says, first and foremost, “I was trying to write a role model.” And characters that are written to be role models first aren’t only inhuman, they’re usually boring to me.

I know it’s a genre thing, especially in YA, but it’s something I always, always dislike. And I particularly dislike it in the context of a girl from the 2010’s time traveling back to yell at the poor, backwards people of the past for not fighting their own oppression better. To make this clear, at one point Etta gets mad at the former slave, who bought his own freedom and is now working his way toward owning a business, for not standing against racism more. Because he took the high road and refused to rise to obvious, drunken bait.

I get the appeal of an outsider character confronting the prejudices of a specific place and time, but you have to be careful with it. Something like that seems less like fighting racism and more like yelling at the black guy for not being born post-Civil Rights.

And to its credit, Passenger does seem to realize this on some level. There are a couple of times over the course of the story where Etta gets smacked in the face with how lucky she’s really been, enough that it seems like her sheltered judgment is supposed to be one of her faults.

But that Twenty-first Century lens doesn’t only come from the character, unfortunately. When the lead of a novel manages to pass for a well-bred lady from the 1700’s solely by being stupidly girly in public, it’s obviously coming from the author, too. Who needs to, say, learn French or piano, when you can just bat your eyes a couple of times?

It isn’t only this book. The thing where modern fiction portrays the people of the past as complete morons who couldn’t possibly think of stepping outside their societally proscribed roles crops up a lot in genre works; I can name at least three other examples off the top of my head. It’s a constant annoyance to me, though, so between that and the Etta’s portrayal as though she’s supposed to be better than everyone else, there were parts of Passenger that were always going to grate.

But, like I said, I did end up generally liking this book, and that’s partially down to the strength of its supporting cast and secondary lead. It’s no secret that I like my broken birds and tragic assholes, and it takes a while for the characters I’m actually interested in to either show up or start showing that side of themselves. Once they do, though, they’re all wonderful.

Nicholas, our male lead, is both amazingly complicated and wonderfully conflicted, wanting to do what’s right but completely willing to lie to himself about what that is. It’s rare to see that kind of self-delusion in a heroic YA character, and I very much appreciate him for it. His deal with the devil early on was the moment I knew I was going to be alright with how the novel was going to progress, and his journey after that was a lot of what made the book work for me.

Crabby, bratty Sophia is pretty much female Draco Malfoy and a character type I always enjoy. Etta’s mother, Rose, while still mysterious seems like she’s going to have a darker side that makes her far more fun than her daughter. And even the villain, Cyrus Ironwood, is very well done: incredibly smart, overwhelmingly threatening, and with enough complexity to make him sympathetic but nowhere near enough to justify him. I’m picky about my villains, and if Bracken keeps him as canny as he is here, the rest of the series should be a wild ride, because a competent villain usually means a nice, tense plot.

Which is another of the novel’s strengths. Our author is unafraid to throw her characters into awful situations without a safety net and force them to make their own way out. She’s also unafraid to leave the characters with no clear answers and with allies that are only sort of on our heroes’ side. Aside from a couple of glitches and unexplained motives, the plotting did its job and kept me wanting to read.

In fact, pretty much all the parts of the novel that weren’t Etta left me wanting more. The time travel mechanics in the series are beyond interesting, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of them in this first book. I still want to know how they all work. Ditto the way the major Traveler families interact, both within each family and between them. The setup for some really great dynastic politicking, or at least backstory involving it, is all there, and I want to see it get its use.

There’s also some very nice personal drama that could use expansion and enough beautiful descriptions of the time periods they find themselves in that I’d be happy just reading them on their own, without an overarching story.

This is sort of what I mean when I say I started liking the book halfway through. Everything I took issue with at the outset develops into something I can actually get behind, with more complication than I would have ever expected from the beginning. Things that I was always going to love come up later in the story. As it goes on, Passenger undermines the clear-cut good and evil it begins with, and even the parts I’m still annoyed with do develop complexity that I never thought they would. Even Etta, who I still can’t say I like, seems to be making moves toward growing beyond her saint-like perfection.

I guess, along with my overall wanting more, I’d just like the novel to have a little more self awareness about certain things, like its historical vision.

That said, with the way the first book ends, it looks like the sequel, Wayfarer, is going to be giving me a lot of what I wanted from this one. I’ll definitely be picking it up when it comes out next year, because at the very least Passenger left me curious to see where Bracken is going from here.