Review: Passenger

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a BIG book. Lots of pages, yes, but Bracken tackles a lot with time-travel world building including passages to different eras and locales. Her main character is a headstrong, violin playing, steel-willed heroine, Etta, who pairs up with a biracial, former slave now self-proclaimed “privateer” (read pirate), Nicholas, to steal a magical astrolabe from an evil megalomaniac who also happens to be Nicholas’s grandfather. The pacing in this one is breakneck once you make it through the slow intro. Following the travelers from place to place proves challenging to keep up with and Bracken chooses both familiar and exotic locales for her characters to traverse.

Etta makes a few jumps in conclusive logic after she’s spirited away by Sophia that seem unrealistic. Her mother, Rose, is emotionally distant, and the leaps Etta makes in connecting her new time-traveling situation to assumptions about her mother’s intentions for her as a traveler are unbelievable in their accuracy. If her mother was as closed off as we are supposed to believe, Etta would need a lot more help in navigating this new wrinkle in her life and discovering her mother’s intent for Etta’s role in this game Ironwood is playing. Supporting character, Sophia Ironwood is deliciously awful and is at once pitiable for the callous way in which her grandfather Ironwood dismisses her, and easy to hate given her venomous attacks on Nicholas which, seem at first racially based, but develop a more complex nuance as the story progresses. Nicholas is trapped by the social constructs of his time and is sometimes annoying with his Doomsday View of his future, particularly when he becomes entangled with Etta. I always want love to overcome.

Ultimately, Bracken weaves it all together and brings the strengths of each character into play. The cliffhanger ending had me cursing the time lag between publications. Clearly, I enjoyed this one since I read it twice. I read it last spring after it had been out for a bit, and revisited it this month to prepare for reading Wayfarer, the conclusion to the story. I applaud Bracken for limiting herself to two installments since three or more seems to be The Thing in publishing these days.

BRIDGE: This would be a great title for lovers of historical fiction. It would pair well with a study of American Revolutionary time period or WWII Britain, those two locales receiving the most description and time in the story. The series itself would be a good one for character study as Sophia and Nicholas both change so much throughout the arc of the series.

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Author Elizabeth Wein Responds to CODE NAME VERITY Discussion

A while back, I posted a virtual “conversation” that my friend K and I had about Code Name Verity. K and I had been tweeting about the book for a while and were lucky enough to have the author, Elizabeth Wein, join in our Twitter conversation. I knew I would blog about it when I had finished and Ms. Wein seemed interested in hearing our thoughts on the book. Honestly, I was excited about her interaction but dubious that it would go farther than that one Twitter conversation. When I originally posted this review-conversation, I made sure to include Ms. Wein in my tweets. When I got no response, I assumed that I had been right. She was just being polite during the initial conversation. I was pleasantly proven wrong. Just last week, Ms. Wein did read the post and she had quite a bit to say in response to our conversation. Below I’m reposting the original along with Ms. Wein’s comments.

I’ve already posted about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein but I just can’t stop thinking about it. I just sit and say, “Damn.” A close friend and sometimes-poster on YABookBridges (@katsprad) was lucky enough to receive a galley of the book. I happened on to it by accident in the library. I had heard a few people mentioning it on Twitter so I decided to see what all the hype was about. Because we live in different states now, it’s difficult for K & I to actually get to speak about books, which is one of the pillars of our friendship. In this case, we were lucky to have already scheduled a visit around the time we finished this book. K finished reading it before I did and she warned me that she was wrecked. I figured if I had made it through The Fault in Our Stars that I was good. How could it be any better (or worse, depending on your perspective) than TFIOS? What follows is a modified transcript of our conversation about Code Name Verity via emails, texts, tweets, and one-to-one conversation.

K: I did warn you [about the book’s impact], and at the same time I told you that YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK. Any book that leaves such a mark on the heart is not to be missed.
Me: This is the best book I’ve read this year. I would wager it’s the best book I’ve read in the last five years. You know this is saying something since I’m a diehard Nerdfighter and TFIOS came out this year. I can’t stop thinking about this book and peeling back the layers Wein has so carefully folded into this novel.
When K & I started talking about this book, we were talking over one another, rushing to have this point made or that observation heard.
K: I’m pretty sure the people near us at the bar thought we were arguing—or crazy. We always have much to say about books we both enjoy, but CNV is special, and our conversation about it has been much richer. We’re STILL talking about it!
ME: The soul of this story is the characters.
One thing K & I both noticed was that while Queenie is the narrator, readers actually get Maddie’s story first.
K: At the beginning, I was a little frustrated with the unclear narrator because I worried that the author was being coy—often these devices/ploys end up being strictly for effect and the plot and/or characters aren’t worth the reader’s effort or patience. In this case, it was all worth the wait and the mystery added a layer of tension and commitment (reader to characters). I was even more watchful and engaged than I usually am at the beginning of a novel because I was trying to solve the problem of the characters’ identities and relationships.
Me: I agree; I worried it could put readers off but Wein makes it work because Queenie’s voice from the first sentence is compelling and engaging. She is defiant and completely self-possessed. She knows what’s being done to her, what she’s doing, and she never flinches from it.
K: Absolutely matter of fact and honest. While the narration is unconventional, we trust Queenie. So readers get Maddie’s nice base of dependability told with Queenie’s panache. Queenie is the flash and Maddie is the steady burn.

WEIN COMMENTS: I love this. I think it’s spot on. A recent reviewer felt that their friendship didn’t work because they were essentially not that different as characters. I am baffled by this criticism. They seem such polar opposites to me, not in terms of education or class, but in terms of personality.

In reference to the narrative structure, WEIN COMMENTS: I wanted to add to your discussion of the way the story is told. When I set out to write it, I really conceived it as Maddie’s story – that Queenie would tell it from the beginning and Maddie would continue it until the end. It didn’t really occur to me how complex this would make the structure of the narrative, or that some people would find it confusing. It does put some readers off – they get hung up wondering how Queenie could know so much about what Maddie’s thinking (well, she’s making it up), or how she could presume to guess what Maddie feels about this or that (well, Maddie TOLD her), or how she can write a story from somebody else’s point of view (How can I, the AUTHOR, write a story from somebody else’s point of view? Well, like me, she’s crafting a novel. She even SAYS so). Or else people just find it confusing to have one story embedded in another. This really wasn’t a criticism I saw coming, and it kind of took me by surprise. I might have done it differently if I’d thought it would confuse people, I guess. But at the time it seemed like a good idea.
K & I both identified strongly with one character and we agreed that every one who reads this story, man or woman, will have the same experience.
ME: Queenie and Maddie’s characteristics are universal and the qualities one looks for in a loyal friend. That’s what they are at the core: loyal, knows-your-greatest-fears, will-raise-your-kids-if-you-die kind of friends. Queenie is inventive, fearless, relies on bravado more than skill, and just has pure guts. Maddie is skilled, logical, honest, and dogged.

WEIN COMMENTS: The other thing is, not everybody actually likes Queenie. This, I feel, is a criticism I can more readily relate to. Not everybody in the book likes her, either; she is headstrong and a liar and can be nasty. She presents herself as a coward, and some readers really fall for that and hate her for it… just like her fellow prisoners. I almost want to see this as a “WIN,” because I did set out to create a cowardly character, and I failed so miserably that it pleases me some people buy it.

And some readers just don’t relate to her. They don’t like her prose style, or her character type, or her attitude. And I can relate to that to, because not everybody gets along with everybody.

K: Their friendship is unusual; a seemingly odd couple, but balanced like yin & yang– dark and light, common and noble, steady and whimsical. But under the gloss of Queenie’s bravado is a sense of devastation at Maddie’s loss. The pain and regret she clearly feels about Maddie, especially in the face of the pain we’d expect her to feel about her present situation, but that SHE clearly doesn’t, makes us want to know all about Maddie herself—anyone who means that much to such a vibrant and indomitable person is someone we want to know.
ME: Both are SO STRONG and they are almost invincible together. One can see this immediately when they’re bringing in the lost German pilot. Maddie knows exactly what to do and Queenie has the moxy to pull it off. Neither of them would have been able to do it alone but it was sheer perfection with them working together.
K: Maddie knew exactly what to have the pilot do and Queenie knew how to say it, both in terms of language and in terms of delivery. If Maddie had been working alone, she might’ve barked instructions and terrified the already dazed pilot even more. Queenie would’ve known how to soothe the poor fellow, but she’d have had him crashing his plane. This is how the two girls discover that they’re almost made for each other, each balancing and enhancing the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Of course, they have to get over the fact that they don’t particularly like each other in order to become friends.
As the story progressed, we both began to wonder what drives these two women.
ME: They have a common goal: to effect change-to make a mark on the world so that each, in her own way, will not be forgotten.
K: What’s fascinating about Maddie and Queenie is how they each enact their shared reason for BEING so differently. If both girls believe the same thing—that the primary point of their lives is to do what’s in their power to make the world a better place—how is it possible that they do things so differently? I think there are superficial variations, like the dissimilar situations each girl gets into and each girl’s range of skills and options. I wonder if these external elements created the disparity in the girls’ actions?
Ultimately, though, we decided that it’s all about the girls’ internal value systems.
ME: Maddie has an unerring moral compass and she chooses to do the right thing regardless of the consequences for herself or anyone else. She doesn’t even consider structure or rules (RAF) when doing the right thing-she does right because it’s right. Queenie is going to make her mark on the world, right and wrong be damned. She works within the structure given her, whether rules or no, to just to play the game. She is invested in the game, not the good or bad outcome. This is what makes her such a good spy. When Queenie is taken to the interrogation room with the other operative and a gun, he breaks her down. It’s immoral to break a person that way, but Queenie goes along because it’s part of the game. Maddie would’ve been outraged.
K: But no matter how different they are from each other in terms of style or focus or skill, both of these women are determined to have an impact and make their lives mean something, and that bonds them even closer.

WEIN COMMENTS: I don’t know if I agree that they share the same goals. I don’t know if I agree that they even have goals. My sense is that neither one of them has any idea of the adult she will become, or what she will do with herself after the war – I actually feel like their “feminism” is sheerly war-connected, and an unknown factor when the war is over. I also love the idea of Maddie’s “moral compass.” The observation that she does what she knows to be right is a very wise one, and actually I think it’s THIS, built through the book, that convinces the reader that her final big decision is also right.
Wein slowly brings the women’s separate trajectories together when the narrative finally switches to Maddie’s voice.
ME: At first, I was convinced that Queenie was giving Maddie instructions on how to rescue Queenie from the hotel-prison. It became clear,
K: Wait! I don’t want to give spoilers. The book is so powerful and the mystery and suspense are so necessary to that power that I’d hate to diminish it for the readers. Queenie uses her narrative to give Maddie hints about her captors and location on the chance that the resourceful and resolute Maddie would move heaven and earth to rescue her friend. When it became clear, however, that rescue was out of the question, I couldn’t fathom Queenie’s hopes or intentions. Trying to decode Queenie’s plans and expectations ratcheted up the tension as the situations in which Queenie and Maddie find themselves became more and more dire. By the time the friends meet again, the stakes are life or death. I was always sure, when it came down to it, that Maddie would save Queenie-and Maddie does save her-but not in the happy-ending kind of way.
The devastating way Maddie saves Queenie elicited another barrage of questions from K and me.
K: Could you have done it?
ME: For certain people in my life but it most surely would have scarred me forever.
K: Me too, but don’t think I could have gone on. Maddie is able to put herself back together and live. Not just that night but for the rest of her life.
ME: Queenie wouldn’t have been able to do it.

WEIN ASKS: What makes you feel that Queenie wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing? (A serious question!)

ME: I feel like Queenie is the more dependent partner in their friendship. I think she accepts that Maddie’s resolution is the inevitable conclusion to her journey but I don’t think she would have accepted that for Maddie. I think she couldn’t have imagined a world where Maddie doesn’t exist. One sees this in her grief over Maddie’s assumed death at the beginning. Maddie seems to be constitutionally strong whereas Queenie seems to exhibit more bravado. I think her courage is a ruse, to a certain extent. She is convincing herself that she’s strong enough to handle her job and its consequences on a job-by-job basis. I’m not sure she has the “backbone” to make the decision that Maddie ultimately has to make.

K: Who is braver?
ME: I think a distinction needs to be made between “brave” (short term stoicism in the face of danger) and “courageous” (long term determination to live with calamity).
K: Then Queenie’s brave: she knows what the Germans are doing to her and what the outcome will be and yet she continues with her mission. Maddie is courageous: she stares down the emotional & psychological consequences; the ramifications, both personal and professional, that she will have to endure for the rest of her life.
ME: And Wein creates a friendship of such miraculous beauty that it takes only one phrase for the friends to plan, accept, and forgive the rescue that must, to save both Queenie and Maddie, be undertaken.

At one point during our Twitter conversation, K asked Wein if she has a Queenie: Do I have a Queenie? I do, yes. Obviously – how could I have written it otherwise? That is the one true thing about the book, the friendship at its heart.

ME: I think it appropriate to close discussing bravery.
K: I kept coming back to the bravery of Elizabeth Wein.
ME: It took Maddie-level courage to write this story with its ending.
K: We were given a true ending rather than a happy ending (which we would have accepted whole-heartedly because of our love of the characters and our fairy-tale-trained longing for nice, neat stories).
Ultimately, it is a story of truths. The story of true friendship. The story of true history. The story of true peril. The story of true love: the pure, unconditional kind of love that allows one to be the best version of herself.