By Kaleigh Steigman
Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger is a thought provoking historical fiction novel disguised as a Young Adult fantasy. It follows Etta, a seemingly average 21st century girl, attempting to make it big as a violinist, who, like many of her YA protagonists peers, turns out to be not so normal. After one disastrous night, her simple view of life is shattered as she is quite literally thrust into the past. She learns that she is the daughter of a time traveler, and must go on a mission throughout time in order to save her mother, and her future. Her journey starts off typically enough, but unlike most teen leads, Etta’s story is not filled with materialistic pursuits, but rather meaningful relationships and real growth.
Alexandra Bracken is a superb writer. There is no way around it. There are books that I have read cover to cover all the while knowing only the color of the protagonist’s hair, and the fit of her clothing. While reading Passenger, I might as well of been watching a movie. Bracken has an amazing ability to place her readers in a scene not only with vivid imagery, but with emotional resonance that makes it seem as though she herself has experienced all that her characters go through. Throughout this novel, Etta traveled through several drastically different time and regional zones, and she masterfully described each and every one of them.
Not only was this world vivid, but its people felt real. Etta, the protagonist, was refreshing. I will not say that she was not naive, as any young person is to some extent, but any naivety she expressed stemmed from a place of optimism over one of ignorance. Etta truly is what a YA character should be: someone who can be a role model, but also isn’t inevitable for her unrealistic perfection, someone who has confidence and strength, but is not unbreakable, someone who is willing to give almost everything for others, but still values her self. Etta and the plot of Passenger worked well together. The story did not feel forced to accommodate Etta, and she didn’t change to fit into it.
With Etta, there was Nicholas. In several novels I have reviewed, I have mentioned the ‘love interest’ of the protagonist. It seems wrong to introduce Nicholas as simply Etta’s love interest as, without him, Passenger would have fallen flat. Nicholas was not only significant to this story when he was with Etta, but shared nearly as big of a role as she did in shaping it. As an African American born in the 1750’s, he not only had to deal with a repressive community due to the color of his skin, but was the bastard son of the dictator-like patriarch of the strongest family of time travelers. Nicholas, like Etta, is a solid character. He was developed without talking over the plot with irrelevant backstory, and he did a wonderful job of both complementing Etta’s character and being individually interesting.
Alexandra Bracken’s talent for character shaping does not stop at heroes. Cyprus Ironwood, the aforementioned vicious patriarch, is evil, yet human. Like many of Bracken’s past antagonists, you love to hate him, but understand his corruption: the perfect villain. His granddaughter, Sophia, is yet more complex. She is a young woman raised by her grandfather that uses time to enslave her. Despite her own ability to travel through time, she is not allowed into the eras when women began to receive rights, and is forced to watch as she is passed up to be the family heir in favor of distant, yet male, relations. She is vindictive and nasty. She reeks of power lust and wields her insecurities like weapons, but you can’t help but understand her.
I have an affinity for time travel novels, and have read many. The writers all go about the actual time travel differently, forming worlds with different scientific or supernatural explanations for the abilities of their characters. Out of all that I have read, Passenger is one of the the most unique. In Etta’s world, time traveling is a gene passed down through families, and passages, which allows transportation both through time and location, and be found in order to travel. The passages are like connecting flights; in order to get to to a certain era, such as Germany during World War 2, a traveler might have to pass through eighteenth-century London and then fourteenth-century Russia to arrive there. This setup offered a more high stakes feel, as the characters were still human; they could be hurt or stranded in a time, and there was never a guarantee that they would find their way out.
Another aspect of this novel that I thoroughly enjoyed was its ability to highlight features of the world that we, the people of the present, take for granted, while also noting that those of the past were not much better. It was very interesting to see Etta and Nicholas’s relationship and the struggles that they both faced separately; Etta as a women, Nicholas as a black man, and those they faced together as an interracial couple. It was often heartbreaking to see how weary Nicholas was of everything, from walking down the street to speaking to Etta in public, and painful to see the adjustments Etta herself had to make to fit in as a women of the past.
My perspective also took a turn when she entered the city of Damascus, Syria, a city currently in ruins, at time when it was at its peak. Etta watched as the people of the 1600s strolled through the beautiful city, unaware of its future, and therefore unappreciative. As a reader of many time travel books, I was amazed that I have never before read a novel that has shaped my worldview quite this way. I was left wondering what I take for granted in my daily life that will one day be gone.
While I loved this book, it was not perfect. The plot was not always ensnaring. The characters fell into cliched holes on several occasions. There were scenes that I had to read over several times for clarity. Though, when I finished this novel, I knew that it had made me think in ways I previously hadn’t, it had allowed me to explore times and places I had never thought of, and I was left wanting more. At the end of the day, Passenger is not life changingly brilliant, and it will not go down as a classic, but it is dang good, which is all I can really ask.