Passenger: An Unexpected Paradox - A Review
The Darkest Minds trilogy by Alexandra Bracken is a YA series that I was a huge fan of back when it was released in 2012. I gave the book as gifts, I convinced friends to read it, and then Never Fade came out and I felt completely justified in my opinions on the series. Never Fade was classic second-book-in-the-trilogy: it didn’t have to set anything up and it didn’t have to resolve anything so it could take full advantage of the world created in the first book to do cool and exciting things. Anything left unresolved? No worries, the third book will fix that. At the time I read it, In the Afterlight didn’t seem so bad because I was still riding the hype train from the previous two books. But as time has gone on I’ve realized it was a rather lackluster and disappointing conclusion to an otherwise exciting series. Now, Alexandra Bracken has released the first novel in her newest series, entitled Passenger. This is a tale that crosses time and space, taking our characters from the oceans of 1779 to London at the height of the Blitz to Damascus in 1599. Bracken employs several clever tactics to avoid the usual litany of time travel paradoxes but, sadly, can’t seem to escape the paradox of her own writing.
Passenger is told from the perspective of two main characters: Etta Spencer and Nicholas Carter. Please withhold your shock and surprise to discover that they become romantically entangled and that circumstances conspire to keep them from embracing the feelings they have towards each other. Generally, chapters flip back and forth between the two characters, a departure from the sole perspective taken in The Darkest Minds trilogy. Herein lays the biggest problem with Passenger: Etta’s chapters are dense and choppy, tearing up the pacing of the story, while Nicholas’ chapters are fluid and elegant, drawing you in as a reader. This is an unfortunate problem because the plot is interesting and the concept is well thought out but none of that means when the writing is inconsistent in its quality. Bracken’s writing style has always relied on hyperbole, often to the point where it feels like there is no rising sense of tension since we’ve already begun at the height of the emotional stakes for the characters. On top of this is a deluge of overwrought metaphors. An example being “a roll of fire breathed through the notes, rattling the breath in Etta’s chest, and sank down through her skin to shimmer in the marrow of her bones” (Bracken 21), or “the anger that had flooded her veins was so pure, she thought it must have turned her blood to acid” (137). These are examples of where the language strays out of being colourful or artistic and simply becomes convoluted and excessive. Both of these metaphors are drawn from Etta’s chapters. By comparison, the metaphors in Nicholas’ chapters are simple and get the point across nicely. Examples include “the ice water drank him deep” (57) or “Nicholas woke at the first touch of shell-pink morning light, the devil’s own hammers at work inside his skull” (154). This isn’t to say that Nicholas’ chapters do not contain some overwrought metaphors, but instead to highlight where a more delicate touch seems to be applied in Nicholas’ chapters. Where Etta’s chapters take a sledgehammer to the words, to force them to be more descriptive, Nicholas’ chapters often rely on finer brush strokes to ease out layers of description. And yes, I am aware I am using metaphors here to describe the use of metaphors in the novel.
On top of these contrasting metaphorical styles, action sequences are another area in which the two perspective characters’ chapters differ greatly. Etta’s chapters often end up describing action in choppy, irregular, and confusing ways. Near the opening of the novel when she is being dragged through the Met you are meant to have a sense of confusion but the writing is so disjointed that it lost me somewhere along the way. On the other hand, Nicholas’ chapters are once again more elegant. The action is clearer and easier to visualize, something Bracken’s style relies on heavily. Whether it’s Nicholas dueling for his life while aggressively boarding a ship on the high seas or attempting to protect Etta from unseen danger in the jungles of Angkor, the action is richer from his perspective. I am willing to concede this may be occurring due to several levels of intention by Bracken. Etta is a violinist, not a privateer, so she certainly wouldn’t have the kind of collected composure during combat that Nicholas has, leading to a more frantic description of events. Likewise, particularly during the scene in the Met, she is disoriented by her first exposure to the passage. But the problem does not lie in what may or may not have been intended with this disparity. The problem lies in the results. It simply becomes apparent that, for whatever reason, an action sequence from Nicholas’ perspective is going to be less nauseating than an action sequence from Etta’s perspective.
Finally, there is the question of exposition. Admittedly one of the more difficult areas of any novel, Bracken decides to tackle the topic of exposition for her complex time-travel universe head-on in one of Etta’s chapters. Etta literally plays a question and answer game with another traveller, Sophia, in which much of the rules of time-travel, the make-up of traveller society, and who the bad guys are is laid out. While the conversation is meant to stimulate some character work for Etta and Sophia it doesn’t take away from the fact that it is more or less 12 pages of undisguised exposition. Etta knows nothing about time-travel or travellers when this conversation starts so obviously her character would have questions. But the choice to have Etta learn about this world is such a direct, and frankly only clinically interesting, way is an odd one. I as the reader don’t understand how the time-travel works or how traveller society works up until this point but that doesn’t mean I want to read a wiki on it. I want to learn about it as the novel progresses, keep some of the mystery of it alive as new details and rules become apparent because of the characters’ actions. Yet again, Nicholas’ chapters are much better in that they give Nicholas the chance to suss information out of his experiences rather than have it laid out for him. He has the advantage of already understanding how time-travel works, meaning that as the reader I learned more through witnessing his practiced actions as opposed to pointed dialogue. I will openly admit that the chapter where Etta and Sophia explain everything in this choppy back and forth exchange is the chapter where I almost gave up on the book. I felt talked down to, as though I wouldn’t be able to figure anything out (or that Etta wouldn’t be able to figure anything out) unless it was explained. And it made what should have been the interesting part of the novel’s concept almost boring. As I said, it leaves no mystery, no fascination in the discovery.
Passenger is only the first book in Alexandra Bracken’s new trilogy. I will read the second novel, and probably the third, when they come out. But I won’t be waiting for them with baited breath the way I was with The Darkest Minds books. In the end, I found myself finishing Passenger and realizing that the whole novel would have been better suited to a single perspective instead of two, and I think it’s obvious which character’s perspective I would have preferred. Ultimately, it leaves my own opinion on the novel in flux. The novel has really good moments, usually from Nicholas’ perspective. It has really dense and choppy moments, usually from Etta’s. It has overwrought metaphors and hyperbolized teen romance that borders on the unbelievable. (It is refreshing to know that at one point Nicholas at least acknowledges what they're feeling as little more than hormonal lust). It has an interesting plot and a broad scope and sometimes authentic and enjoyable characters. Passenger is a novel that holds a half-dozen paradoxes within its pages and I feel this disrupts the elements that could have made it great.
Bracken, Alexandra. Passenger. United States: Hyperion, Jan. 2016. Print.