Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: Well, it’s about time: stories where, if somebody isn’t from the future, then they’ve got an unusually strong grasp on the present.

The ground rules of time travel have been pretty well established in movies and pop culture. So much so that it seems like every possible way it could work has already been done to death. Time loops, immutable futures, changeable futures, changed futures that are actually alternate realities have all been addressed before, and it’s been years since I’ve seen any take on time travel that had anything truly novel in it. However, each of these three books brings something new to the table, which means it’s time to stop wasting time, and start talking about it, starting with the following:

So if you like:

Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The chronology of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion
Stories told through correspondence

You might like

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Overview

Two opposing agents working to change the future through the past develop an unusual relationship through left messages.

Sample passage

On a span of blasted ground, she finds the letter.

It does not belong. Here there should be bodies mounded between the wrecks of ships that once sailed the stars. Here there should be the death and dirt and blood of a successful op. There should be moons disintegrating overhead, ships aflame in orbit.

There should not be a sheet of cream-colored paper, clean save a single line in a long, trailing hand: Burn before reading.

Red likes to feel. It is a fetish. Now she feels fear. And eagerness.

She was right.

She searches shadows for her hunter, her prey. She hears infrasonic, ultrasound. She thirsts for contact, for a new, more worthy battle, but she is alone with the corpses and the splinters and the letter her enemy left.

It is a trap, of course.

Vines curl through eye sockets, twine past shattered portholes. Rust flakes fall like snow. Metal creaks, stressed, and shatters.

It is a trap. Poison would be crude, but she smells none. Perhaps a noovirus in the message—to subvert her thoughts, to seed a trigger, or merely to taint Red with suspicion in her Commandant’s eyes. Perhaps if she reads this letter, she will be recorded, exposed, blackmailed for use as a double agent. The enemy is insidious. Even if this is but the opening gambit of a longer game, by reading it Red risks Commandant’s wrath if she is discovered, risks seeming a traitor be she never so loyal.

The smart and cautious play would be to leave. But the letter is a gauntlet thrown, and Red has to know.

She finds a lighter in a dead soldier’s pocket. Flames catch in the depths of her eyes. Sparks rise, ashes fall, and letters form on the paper, in that same long, trailing hand.

Red’s mouth twists: a sneer, a mask, a hunter’s grin.

The letter burns her fingers as the signature takes shape. She lets its cinders fall.

Red leaves then, mission failed and accomplished at once, and climbs downthread toward home, to the braided future her Agency shapes and guards. No trace of her remains save cinders, ruins, and millions dead.

Takeaway

The trick with books involving time travel is that it requires a bit more paying attention to track where and when things are taking place. Fortunately for the reader, the authors present the message exchange through the recipient’s timelines, so it’s their perception of events that’s being tracked, and the where and the when add color, but aren’t critical to following the flow of events. It’s a bit of a slow start, but that’s necessary to define the characters so that when they have to deal with the consequences of their interaction, everything clicks. This book is very well written, and has a few twists that turn it into something more than two enemies just passing notes during work hours.

Or if you like:

Post apocalyptic YA fiction
Someone who gets New Hampshire’s black fly problem
Well written characters
Not wondering how else it could have ended.

You might like

The Electric Kingdom, by David Arnold

Overview

In a world wiped out by disease and swarms of bugs that will strip an animal to the bones in seconds, teenaged Nico is forced to venture out to discover the truth in the bedtime stories her father told her about the old world, while occasionally encountering a mysterious figure who seems to be supernaturally good at being in the right place at the right time.

Sample passage

He thought of a book from the nonfiction shelves about the solar system, and how someone had written in the margins of a page, THE FINAL FRONTIER. From this book, Kit learned that there had once been some very smart people who knew an awful lot about space. Some had gone to space, flown rockets into space, explored regions and documented their findings. However, the book said, outer space is an infinite ocean in which humans have only yet dipped the corner of a toenail.

Kit thought back to that day of their very first drill. After his Dakota had rung the bell from the rooftop and they’d all run to the Paradise Twin, she’d looked them in the eye and said, “We will not be caught off guard.”

Again, you mean,” Kit had said quietly.

As far as he knew, they had been caught off guard exactly twice: his Dakota’s recent close call, and years before, when Kit was very young, the swarm that killed Monty and Lakie’s biological parents.

He hadn’t meant anything by it. But the looks they’d given him that day taught him something. There was a code. A right way, and a wrong way, to speak of the Flies. Surviving, running, fighting, preparing, defending—these were part of the code. Reminding everyone of a time when the Flies had taken something from them—this was not.

How to be human, it seemed, was an infinite ocean in which Kit had only yet dipped the corner of a toenail.

Takeaway

Swarms of death descending from the sky would seem to indicate that Mr. Arnold is familiar with New Hampshire’s black fly problem, but what he’s crafted here is an interesting twist on the teenagers finding their way across a post-adult, post-apocalypse. I really can’t say too much about why she’s going on this trip, or the science fiction trope (as recognizing it was straightforward, but figuring out how it actually plays out comes with a few neat twists), or the eventual payoff (which was very solid, considering the number of things that could have been left unresolved)… which leaves me with discussing the book’s quality.

It’s good. Really, surprisingly good. The plot is tight, the pacing is stay-up-past-your-bedtime good, and the characters are extremely believable. A real treat for fans of YA post-apocalypse novels.

Or if you like:

Time travel with a romantic twist
The tone of authors like Ernest Cline, Curtis C. Chen, or Jim C. Hines
A few twists on time travel that you haven’t seen before
Tal M Klein’s The Punch Escrow

You might like

All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai

Overview

A screwup from an idyllic alternate timeline ends up in ours, and has some tough decisions to make about who he loves and what that means.

Sample passage

So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.

That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault—well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?

Well, it happened.

It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D printers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or whatever. But it hardly looks like The Jetsons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

I’m sorry, despite receiving the best education available to a citizen of the World of Tomorrow, the grammar of this situation is a bit complicated.

Maybe the first person is the wrong way to tell this story. Maybe if I take refuge in the third person I’ll find some sort of distance or insight or at least peace of mind. It’s worth a try.

Takeaway

It’s tough to review this without dropping spoilers, as the book takes a sharp turn halfway through, hitting events that I thought would be the end of the story, and the rest of it is really what the book is about, rather than the time travel setup the reader knows is coming and has to wait the first 20% or so of the book to get to. While there is a romantic angle to this, it’s not to the extent of the movies Somewhere In Time, or About Time, or The Time Traveler’s Wife, so its not fair to pitch it as a straight up romance, as the main character’s evolution (and he does evolve out of being the juvenile screwup he is at the start of the book) takes center stage.
So what can I say? It’s time travel, things don’t go well, and there are unexpected complications and implications. Apart from a few areas of slow pacing (and I’d attribute that to First Novel Problems) I stayed up late reading the last third of the book to finish it. If you like any of the authors mentioned in the “if you like” section above, you’ll want to give this a read.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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