Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken


Hardcover, 464 pages
Expected publication: January 5th 2016 by Disney-Hyperion
Source: Publisher

Etta Spencer is a violin virtuoso, a prodigy (the synopsis says) on the cusp of making her debut and gaining wide recognition for her skills. On the night she is supposed to play at the museum her mother works at, she hears a strange feedback that interrupts her playing and causes her to rush off the stage. A fellow musician guides her toward the sound and in the general area she trips over her music teacher’s body whom she overheard arguing with her mother earlier in the evening. Before she can recover from the discovery, she is pushed into a tunnel of some sort and when she next opens her eyes she is on a ship in the 18th century. There she meets a lot of people namely the dangerously attractive (ha, I always snicker at this phrase) Nicholas who has a lot of issues stemming mostly from his skin colour, his illegitimacy, and the rage he feels at his father’s side of the family. Etta also finds out her own identity and the part she plays in a game that has been in play for centuries.

So I just finished Caligula by Suetonius and good lord, Gaius Ceasar was a horrid person. In contrast, Cyrus Irongood, the patriarch of the Irongood family who has killed (or had other people kill) a lot of people all over time (literally) to cement his own power and position as the leader of the travelers is not as bad. However, as the narrative continues and his motivations come to light, he climbs the villain scale rapidly.

Etta has about seven or so days to find an astrolabe that Cyrus claims belongs to him. Otherwise he is going to have Etta’s mother killed–standard villain fare. Nicholas is Cyrus’s illegitimate grandchild and well knows the evil his grandfather is capable of. So when he is manipulated to agree to accompany Etta on the search for the astrolabe, he is wary because he knows that crossing Cyrus has repercussions that he may not be willing to deal with. So the reader is well aware that Nicholas joins Etta with an agenda of his own.

The novel follows the travelers around the world and all over time as Etta and Nicholas hop time traveling tunnels from one year to another. The time traveling sounds logical to me but I’m not much of a sci fi person so others who read more sci fi will know whether it holds up to time traveling science. I appreciated the variety of settings and the different slices of cultures present in the novel. I also appreciated how self-aware (and pertinent in the context of the times) the novel is. This is particularly evident when Etta confronts her white privilege.

Etta trailed behind [Nicholas] as he walked in the direction they’d come from. She didn’t think he had a destination in mind; he barely looked up, except to acknowledge the flow of traffic. It wasn’t until she got caught on the opposite sidewalk, waiting for a stream of cars to pass, that he finally stopped and whirled around.

And as sharp as his anger had been, his relief was soft, palpable, as he waited for her. Etta hurried to his side, but he still didn’t move; his throat worked as he swallowed.

“You don’t have to explain,” she said. “Everything about this is hard.”

“It’s not that,” he said, his whole face tight with strain as he eyed the street. “it’s only…when you resign yourself to a certain invisibility, when…you look as I do. I didn’t expect the opposite to be true in this time, and I find I don’t like the attention. The looks.”

You idiot, Etta told herself. What a privilege it was to never feel like you had to take stock of your surroundings, or gauge everyone’s reactions to the color of your skin. Of course he felt uncomfortable. Of course.

Nicholas has a difficult time dealing with the discrimination and prejudice that the colour of his skin repeatedly subjects him to. This also affects his burgeoning feelings for Etta (whole issue of possible betrayal aside). The novel is romance heavy and those who like that mushy stuff will enjoy the subplot.

Passenger has all the elements of a successful novel: intrigue, action, sensitivity to detail and contemporary issues, relatable and sympathetic protagonists. But strangely enough, I could not get into it. I think it’s because I didn’t like Nicholas. Etta is a fascinating heroine and I would have loved to see her come into her own and I would have liked the romance to be pared down so that it didn’t quite have as big a role in the narrative as it does. Nicholas, while I wholeheartedly sympathize with his issues, doesn’t seem to make for a good love interest. And I daresay this is more because I’m an adult reading this than there being anything wrong with the book. I just didn’t like his attitude towards other characters and just..I wanted more time to be spent dealing with the issue at hand than thinking about who feels what and wallowing in the misery of the unavoidable separation.

The ending is a surprise and I really enjoyed how it played out. While I initially had doubts about how much I like Etta’s mother, the glimpses we get of her throughout the novel make her into the most fascinating character out of all the characters in the novel.  Do I think Passenger is Bracken’s best work? No, I cannot say I do. I have read everything she has written and liked them better but if you are in the market for a time-traveling YA fantasy with a large helping of romance, this might be your thing.

4 responses to “Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

  1. Nafiza, I always LOVE your reviews. They’re very fair – honest but giving credit where credit is due. I’ve been hearing about Passenger everywhere and I think your review will help me to read it with fair expectations. Thanks again! – Alyson

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