Dear Ms. Ridgway,
In his book The Art of Fiction, the late author John Gardner wrote:
…whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind. We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous—vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked, and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion. – John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, p. 31 (ellipses mine)
I thought of this passage as I was reading your book, The River of No Return, because the reading experience was unusual and almost surreal. The book, a time travel fantasy with romantic elements published just last year, carries its reader on a journey in which flights of fancy take off in multiple directions, so that disbelief must be suspended not only once or twice, but over and over.
There were times, while reading it, when I felt perilously close to shaking myself free of the book’s grip. I wondered if its author was asking me to believe too much, and yet, just as I skated close to too much doubt, the novel’s continuousness and vividness somehow reasserted themselves.
I picked up The River of No Return partly thanks to an intriguing review at Badass Romance. The novel begins in 1815, with Julia Percy. Julia’s grandfather, the Earl of Darchester, has the ability to manipulate time, to halt it or hasten it, and thus far he has used it to protect Julia from his detestable heir Eamon. The ill Lord Percy’s last instructions to Julia are to pretend to know nothing about his ability. With his last strength, he speeds his own death so that when Eamon comes to question him, he arrives at Castle Dar too late.
The action then moves to 2013, where we are introduced to Nick Davenant, an independently wealthy owner of artisanal cheese farms in Vermont. When Nick wakes from a nightmare, his mind reaches for the memory of a girl with dark eyes, a girl he knew two hundred years earlier, in another life.
In 1812, about to be killed in battle, Nick, then Marquess of Blackdown, jumped forward in time. He woke in a hospital bed and was greeted by a member of a mysterious organization known as the Guild, who explained that going back in time was impossible and return to the geographic location that had once been his home forbidden.
A lost Nick accepted this and flew to Chile where his Guild training began. On a beautiful campus, Nick was immersed in the study of 21st century culture and taught to keep the Guild’s secrets. Nick and other time jumpers received two million dollars in annual income, but two of the fellow students Nick befriended, Meg and Leo, had suspicions about the Guild.
One day Nick witnessed Leo’s interrogation by a creepy, disturbing man. “Mr. Mibbs” flooded Leo with despair and then turned this power on Nick. Later, Meg overheard the Guild’s leader, Alice Gacoki, mention a disappearance, a man named Ignatz, and a fractured Brazilian resistance whose regrouping the Guild needed to prepare for. To Leo and Meg these incidents were proof of the Guild’s deceit, but Nick preferred to believe that Meg must had imagined Alice’s words. The next day Meg and Leo were gone.
In the decade since, Nick has wondered if his friends chose to leave the campus, or if Alice Gacoki had them killed. But now Nick has received a letter from Alice, a summons to the one place he was told he could never return—London.
Meanwhile, in 1815, Julia is trapped in Castle Dar. She won’t come into her small inheritance for three more years so for now she’s dependent on the obsessive Eamon, who believes her grandfather had a special ability.
In accordance with her grandfather’s dying wishes, Julia refuses to acknowledge it, but eventually Eamon tricks her into revealing the truth. Eamon believes Lord Percy’s strange skills were owed to a talisman, and that Julia knows what that talisman is. He determines to obtain this information, even if it means locking her up, denying her visitors, and allowing her reputation to be shredded.
In London of 2013, Alice reveals to Nick that going back in time is in fact possible. For reasons yet undisclosed, the Guild now needs Nick to temporarily return to 1815 in her husband Arkady’s company. Nick, comfortable now in his 21st century skin, is afraid of resuming his old life, but he’s also wary of the Guild. Under Arkady’s guidance, he begins to train for travel to 1815.
One morning Nick he is trailed by a familiar and unwelcome face– the frightening “Mr. Mibbs.” Luckily Nick escapes him unharmed. Alice and Arkady deny knowing this man, and they’re skeptical that Mibbs can make others feel despair. They explain that although Guild members use mass emotions to travel through time, despair is the one feeling they cannot latch onto.
Arkady and Alice also reveal that the Guild has an enemy organization called the Ofan. They say it’s possible the Ofan sent Mibbs, though his ability is unlike any that Ofan members have shown. Nick believes them, and, still in the dark about why he is needed in the past, he accompanies Arkady home to 1815.
He doesn’t realize that on the estate that neighbors his own, Julia Percy, the girl with the dark eyes, the memory with which he comforts himself during nightmares, badly needs his aid, and has made an astonishing discovery…
The River of No Return cleverly takes its title from a metaphor used by the characters to describe time itself. As noted before, this book required a lot of disbelief suspension. There are several twists and turns to this novel, and some of them require expanding the explanations of the rules within which time travel operates and what knowledge and abilities the time travelers possess.
At times, I felt these explanations pleasantly stretched my mind, because there were interesting concepts behind them. But at other times they were almost too much, especially when they were slapped on quickly and thickly, or coincided with abrupt or improbable turnarounds by the characters.
For example, when Alice and Arkady were educating Nick in some of the rules governing the manipulation of time, I wondered if they could be trusted, and I also didn’t understand why, with all his initial suspicions of their involvement in Meg and Leo’s disappearance and his anger about the Guild’s past lies about the nature of time travel, Nick suddenly became willing to trust in the information they gave him.
I therefore also didn’t know if I should believe the information Arkady and Alice gave Nick about time travel, or about Mr. Mibbs, and that made me wonder if the whole book was going to be one big mindf—k for Nick, or maybe even for the reader. Having finished reading the book, I no longer think that is the case, but it’s an example of the moments of doubt which jarred me.
The romantic element in this book is pronounced but I didn’t always feel it was on solid ground. Once in 1815, Nick realizes he is in love with Julia pretty quickly. At first this took me aback because although they had a childhood acquaintance, Julia and Nick don’t meet for over a third of the book and then once they do his epiphany seemed to come fast and almost out of nowhere. My reluctance to buy in was exacerbated by my unease with the difference in their ages (over a decade) and the fact that Julia had no idea of Nick’s true age at first, or of his life in the 21st century.
Eventually I became persuaded of the genuineness of Nick’s feelings for Julia, but not before also experiencing some confusion due to Nick’s thoughts of compromising Julia without much care for her reputation. Then I realized part of the point was that Nick was torn between nineteenth century beliefs and twenty-first century values. Just as he swung from wanting to protect Julia’s reputation to wanting to discard all thought of it and back, Nick also swung from being a man who believed his sisters were his responsibility to one who saw women as equals of men, and aristocrats as holding no superiority to anyone else.
Initially the flip-flopping annoyed me—I like to have a sense of who a character is and what he stands for—but then I began to see that my conflicted feelings about Nick’s shifting values mirrored Nick’s own conflict about who he was and what he wanted to stand for. Nick was sucked back into a time he had grown up in, and like an adult returning to his childhood home, he had to fight against the behavior patterns that had been established when he was still young. I thought this was believable and fascinating.
I also really liked that Nick’s values conflict tied in to the values conflict between the Guild and the Ofan. Perhaps it was inevitable that organizations made up of time travelers would have members who need to hash out what they each believed and stood for, and interpret these belief systems differently from one another, as well as shift belief systems during their lifetimes.
This aspect of the characters and their world engaged me intellectually as well as emotionally. The book was at times disturbing because these fluctuations in values endangered the characters both from within and from without, and sometimes they even endangered my involvement in the reading experience. There were times when the book seemed too fluid, too amorphous, like this river of time with its changing current and its ability to diverge into streams, empty into a greater ocean, or turn in on itself. But again, this was part of the point.
There were some things I would have preferred be explained sooner or better—such as why Nick adapted to the twenty-first century to such an extent that he’d become so much more egalitarian and progressive in his views while living in the 2000s. Some details felt glossed over—like Julia’s father, the earl of Darchester’s son.
At least five major questions were left unanswered at the end of the book, and though I understand there will be a sequel (with a different couple at its center), and realize, upon reflection, that to answer all of these questions would have been to stuff too much into the ending of this book, I still wish at least one or two of these had been resolved.
With that said, I really liked the last scene, with its subtle note of optimism.
I also like Julia a great deal, though there was considerably less of her POV than there was of Nick’s. Julia was sensible despite an unconventional upbringing, and although she could have easily come across as a Mary Sue, she didn’t. I also never doubted her as I occasionally did Nick, though I did feel she kept her secrets close to her vest for a little too long, considering how alone and isolated she was.
The side characters and villains were all interesting, and some were revealed to be quite complex. I look forward to seeing more of them in the next book.
I liked the writing style too; here is a sample to show what I mean. This is from soon after Nick arrives in the 21st century and meets a Guild member who explains his new circumstances as well as how the battle he left behind ended.
“It was a glorious triumph. And in 1815, your armies won not only the battle, but the war.”
The whole war. Over. Folded away into history books like bridal linens into an attic trunk. Salamanca a glorious triumph…but what did they say of the siege of Badajoz and its aftermath? Everything? Nothing? Nick shook his head. “This is madness,” he said.
“Sorry?” Nick scrubbed his face with the palms of his hands, then ran his fingers up into his hair. Rage boiled up in him. “What am I meant to say to that? ‘No matter, my dear Sir Butcher’? ‘That’s quite all right’? Good God, man, you have told me how my mother came to learn of my own death. Except that I am not dead and my mother is. Two centuries dead.”
I’ve enumerated quite a few issues I had with The River of No Return and I fear this review will not capture how much I enjoyed reading this novel. Even with the problems I had, I was thoroughly entertained and I especially appreciate that the novel kept me reading (and reading fast at that) at a time when other books did not engage me.
For a reader who prefers that most of his or her questions be answered and that the characters always remain consistent, their motives clear, this book might be too shaky a ride. But for a reader who can live with a higher degree of uncertainty and opaqueness in the service of a novel that feels fresh and interesting, this River might be worth plunging into. C+
PS As a native speaker of Hebrew, I can say that “Ofan” is no more “a contraction of a Hebrew word” than “angel” is a contraction of an English word. “Ofan” is the singular form of the Hebrew word, while “Ophanim” is the plural.