For a first post of the year I have the pleasure of reviewing a forthcoming Young Adult novel by Everett Maroon, who I very much enjoyed meeting at the past year’s Lambda Literary Retreat. The book is currently in the process of undergoing edits before being sent to press, so this might be a tad early, but I figure readers can keep their eyes peeled in the upcoming months. 🙂
At first, The Unintentional Time Traveler seems to rely on conventional time travel tropes, especially the trope of “whoops I accidentally did the time travel thing”, which was most recently popularized by The Time Traveler’s Wife. But without giving away one of the best twists of the novel, I can safely say that Maroon not only challenges conventional time travel tropes in the genre, but deftly, and even cheekily, subverts them. This alone will interest both young adult and adult audiences of the novel.
The story is told by the main character, Jack a teen boy who lives in 1980. Jack also has epilepsy, and it is through this that he finds himself enrolled in a medical study. During one of the study sessions, something goes . . . awry . . . and Jack finds himself in a strange place and time, where people still go to school in one room schoolhouses, ride horses, and polio is a common disease. The novel divides itself between these two time frames as Jack jets back and forth between the two. In the past timeline, Jack begins to fall unexpectedly in love; he thus becomes increasingly invested in preventing bad things from happening in the past timeline, even if this means repeatedly going back in time and tampering with things.
Jack is the narrator of the tale as well, and Maroon’s straightforward prose helps Jack’s voice lift off the page. I could hear Jack’s voice, and more than I once I chuckled at the teen’s sarcastic commentary. There could have been a danger of Jack’s sarcastic quips sounding forced or invasive, but Maroon’s touch is light enough that this never happens. Jack sounded like a real teen, and that is no mean feat to accomplish.
Jack’s voice as a narrator also helps to avoid the issue of clichéd teen angst in the story. Of course the potential is there. Jack has many things to deal with in both his present and past timeline. He also has two teen friends, Jeannie and Jay, who, while both essential to the story, also have their own arcs going on the background. Between the three of them, these teens grapple with the quintessential stuff of YA fiction: identity, belonging, love, and a bit of lust. While Maroon allows Jack to acknowledge issues and even contemplate them, it never becomes too much, allowing the plot to continue moving briskly. Jack’s sarcasm helps things from becoming too weighty, but important things are dealt with maturely and carefully.
I found all of the characters and relationships incredibly sympathetic and organic, meaning, nothing seemed forced to me about who these people where and what they wanted, and the relationships they shared with others. As a person who reads fiction to read about people and their relationships, I thoroughly enjoyed feeling like each character was an individual, and had their own story which added to — and never distracted from — the main story. I especially rooted for Jack on his journey of discovering who he was, and finding out, ultimately, where he truly belonged.
LGBTQ teens will be especially drawn to this book, because it deals frankly with issues of both queer sexuality and gender. Two of the main characters are LGBTQ. And while Maroon touches on the reality of homophobia through a subplot, it never becomes a driving force in the narrative — for which I was grateful. It was lovely to read about LGBTQ teens and folks living their lives without having to have a dramatic or protracted “coming out” sequence, or “gay” or “gender 101” type of information dumps, all of which are becoming the staple of too many mainstreamed queer narratives. Maroon smartly allows these people simply be who they were in many ways.
This subtly also allows for the reader to explore their own ideas and feelings on many of these topics — gender, sexuality, and belonging, particularly — which I think is a great thing for a YA novel.
All and all, an entertaining and fun read, but don’t mistake the brisk pacing, crisp prose, and clear characterization as being “simple”, either. This book is well worth reading, and I recommend it particularly for LGBTQ young adults, young adults who enjoy science fiction and fantasy, and high school and public librarians who would like to add some stories with LGBTQ main characters to their collection.