Born in an era when African slavery was a norm, Nicholas Carter is one of the lucky few to have escaped that ill-fated destiny. Captain Nathaniel Hall purchases his freedom from the powerful Ironwood family, trains him as a sailor and privateer for British ships and raises him as his own. But Nicholas is not just an Ironwood slave but the illegitimate child of one of the Ironwood sons. He is also, as he later finds out when grudgingly revealed by the Ironwood patriarch, an inheritor of the time-travelling ability. The number is dwindling, there are less than a hundred travellers left, and all do the bidding of, and play by the rules set by the Ironwood grandfather. He would like nothing to do with Nicholas, but with his empire crumbling and timelines becoming unstable, he needs an ancient lost artefact to restore order. Tempted by the promises of being trained in time travelling wisdom and a legitimacy which has eluded him, Nicholas foolishly agrees to a binding contract with the Ironwoods, the terms of which stipulate that he has to accompany his half-brother across different centuries in search for this lost object. The search is unfruitful with disastrous consequences. He is exiled back to his natural timeline and forbidden to travel again. He makes peace with reality and gets back on his job of capturing ships. One of the prize captures holds two passengers and that throws him back to the Ironwoods path.
Etta Spencer has her future figured out. As a violin prodigy, all she has ever dreamed of is to render melodies, make her mentor proud and win the affection of her reticent mother. She has battled stage fright and isolated herself from a social life to achieve this dream. Her performance at a forthcoming event is supposed to be her grand debut, testing waters to get rid of her nerves. Just when she thinks she has got a grip on herself, she overhears an unsettling conversation. This, combined with unexplained acoustic reverberations when she is playing on stage, causes her to fumble her way through her performance. A murder and kidnapping later, she realizes that this is just the beginning of her nightmare, a journey that begins with a ship she is a passenger on – in a different century.
My experience with time-travel fiction is severely limited, the closest being a few chapters from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But I feel that time-travelling is a tricky bit of fictional concept to handle, due to its inherently contradictory nature. It is something that can get ludicrous and messy very easily if the author doesn’t have a hold over the self-imposed set of “rules” for it. But Bracken tackles it with nimble plotting and a sleight of hand that is entertaining to read. All this would have not counted for much if the characterization had fallen flat. But the people fleshed out in the book are not just distinctive in their backgrounds, ways and motives but also .. uh .. not boring to read about. Cyrus Ironwood is sufficiently ruthless, but over the years his actions are blinded and driven by a reason that is not just power. Sophia, another distant Ironwood kin, is denied of her rights like Nicholas, but she turns out to be a cankerous version of what she could have been. Rose, Etta’s mom is … well.. I am not sure what to make of her. I don’t know how to say anything without throwing in spoilers, but let’s just say, I don’t like her.
I loved Etta and Nicholas and totally dug the way their relationship progressed. It was unhurried and (thank god!) they didn’t lose sight of the very real problems of the .. time between them. There were times I got impatient with the romantic proses, but I must admit, they were well-written, without getting too cheesy and out-of-place. I loved Etta and Nicholas individually as characters too. I think one of the reasons they worked for me is that despite how young they were (I think Etta is seventeen and Nicholas is twenty), they showed maturity and common sense (not that this has much to do with youth though) in situations that necessitated it, but didn’t always look self-assured or worldly-wise belying their age and life experiences. Theirs was a love story and journey that was so much fun to read about and visualize because it, quite literally, transcended time and space. Witnessed wars, relics in ruins and wildlife in its tranquil best. And satisfyingly, it was also about individual journeys of two equals, in every sense. That is another arc I loved – Etta steering Nicholas into that headspace where he can believe that equality is probable beyond the parables.
Bracken divides the book into different eras, as travelled by Etta and Nicholas, but as I read the book, I personally felt, it could also be seen as two halves – the second half beginning with Etta and Nicholas’s journey to find the object. It was here that I felt the pace of the book began to ebb. It started taking the form of a typical archaeological treasure hunt by people escaping goons. But as the story marches into the final hundred-odd pages, it veers towards some exciting strides. And oh boy, Bracken ends the first instalment of this series with a flourish! She teases us with some startling revelations and unexpected alliances. And a huge chunk of family history and heritage left to be discovered. I can’t wait to see what she serves up in the next book!
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