2013. Dutton. Hardcover. 452 pages.
Recommendation from: Reading Rambo
The River of No Return has been showing up on several blogs in my feed, but Reading Rambo’s was the first I read and her review easily convinced me to pick up this entertaining time-travel novel.
About to lose his life during a battle in 1812, young British marquess Nicholas Falcott is suddenly transported to the 21st century. He is promptly collected by a powerful organization of time travelers called the Guild. The Guild educates him in the 21st century and sets him up with a generous living stipend. He and the other newly arrived time jumpers also learn that they cannot travel back in time, cannot live in their home country, and cannot tell anyone about the time travel. However, after ten years of living in Vermont, Falcott is summoned by the Guild to travel back to the year 1815 on a vague mission to stop a group of rogue time travelers called the Ofan.
Meanwhile, in 1815, in the neighboring estate to Falcott’s, young Julia Percy suffers the loss of her grandfather and guardian, Lord Percy. Her heartless cousin Eamon, heir to the estate, believes that Lord Percy could control time through the use of an object, a talisman. Julia herself witnessed her grandfather’s power throughout her life, but thought it died with him.
The River of No Return is a smartly written take on the time travel genre. Both the time travel aspects and the historical fiction aspects of the book felt well-realized. In a lazy writer’s hands, the Guild would probably have been this monolithic institution controlled by cold-hearted, inhuman officials. Instead, though the book hints early on that the Guild’s front of benevolence hides many secrets, the Guild’s motivations are an all-too-human mix of fear, greed, sorrow and traditionalism.
This might be weird, but I loved that England’s 1815 parliamentary fight over the Corn Laws formed a substantial subplot in the novel. (Don’t be ashamed to click the wikipedia link I’ve embedded in the last sentence. I didn’t know much about them either.) Often it seems that time travel narratives inordinately focus on wars and changes of leadership as the events that change the course of history, instead of on events like the passage of the Corn Bill. A governmental change to economic policy doesn’t sound like it would be a compelling plot point but it really works in The River of No Return. In 1815, Nick Falcott debates with a senior Guild member, Arkady, about how he should vote in the matter of the Corn Laws:
[Falcott:] “. . . unless you’re going to tell me that the Prince Regent is a time traveler, I’m afraid I’m bound to play on his chessboard, too. Did I not tell you? He sent me a Writ of Summons. I am to appear in the House of Lords tomorrow.”
“Was that what you were going on about about at dinner? My priest, how dreary!” [Arkady] laughed. “Maybe it is the sunset of the aristocracy, but money – it is always high noon with the money! That is why the Corn Bill – it passes. People suffer. Decades later it is struck down, but oh dear – it is too late to save the Irish!” Arkady yawned. “This is the foolery of the Naturals. It has nothing to do with you, and there is nothing you can do that could change it.”
“I was planning to vote for it.”
That wiped the smile from Arkady’s face. He stopped walking and stared. “What? But you know it is terrible, this bill!”
“Ah.” Nick twitched his cuffs. “I thought you said it didn’t matter what I did. I thought you said the bill was boring.”
Arkady’s stare softened. “You are pulling the leg! You trick me!”
“Perhaps.” Nick smiled. “You’re afraid that things can be changed, Arkady, admit it. That the Ofan can change things. That I might change things. You don’t want me to think for myself in case I screw up the future.”
The Corn Bill plot nicely parallels some aspects of the conflict between the Guild and the Ofan, and I’m grateful that Ridgway didn’t explicitly link them together and ruin the subtlety of her comparison.
But perhaps starting out my review with a discussion of the Corn Bill subplot was not a good idea. Perhaps it might make The River of No Return sound more academic than fun, which is definitely not the case. Ridgway inserts a great sense of humor as well as romance into her story. She’s adept at laying out a scene and it’s refreshing to read some good, meaty dialogue (usually the weaker element in current literature, in my experience.)
Ridgway’s entire cast of characters are an intriguing lot: Ridgway doesn’t expend all of her energy on the two romantic leads, Nick and Julia – who are both likable, to be sure. But I also enjoyed Nick’s steely sister Clare, his savvy former comrade-in-arms Jem Jemison, charismatic time jumper Alva Blomgren, and the commanding presence of Guild Alderwoman Alice Gacoki, among others. I hope all of them show up in the next book – and yes, the book is definitely set up to have at least a sequel. Although I did not find the ending to be a terrible cliffhanger, the narrative definitely promises that there is more to be revealed. I count The River of No Return as one of the most pleasurable reads I have had this year.
Excerpts from other’s reviews:
Reading Rambo – “The book spends a good amount of time in 1815, and somehow convinced me in the course of it that the author had firsthand knowledge of what it was like, which is pretty damn impressive. My brain: “Oh, so THAT’S what the air smelled like. Good thing we have someone alive with this knowledge…wait.””
S.Krishna’s Books – “Readers will thoroughly enjoy getting to know him, and it’s interesting to watch him cram himself back into the confined expectations of his own time period after living in the freedom of the present. This book is multifaceted and layered; Ridgway makes sure that she doesn’t neglect any one aspect of the book in order to promote another.”
That’s What She Read – “There is something about The River of No Return that makes it highly enjoyable in spite of its flaws. The time travel elements and their explanations are weak on science and long on wishful thinking, while the characters barely expand beyond a character sketch.”