Sci-Fi-Rom: Bee Ridgway’s The River of No Return
A decade ago, Audrey Niffenegger wrote her mega-bestseller, The Time Traveler’s Wife, an impassioned and improbable romance that just so happened to be built upon one of science fiction’s most reliable tropes: time travel. With her debut novel, The River of No Return, Bee Ridgway skillfully manages to do the same, writing an epic historical romance that proudly flaunts its sci-fi pedigree while still crafting an accessible, ambitious story that will appeal to fans of either genre.
In The Time Traveler’s Wife, Henry (the protagonist) is a solo traveler, but here, a whole society of time travelers are unearthed. However, these time jumpers only become aware of their fantastical ability in a moment of great duress. For Nicholas Falcott, that moment is when his life is threatened on the battlefield, as a British soldier fighting the French in the Battle of Salamanca in 1812. Just as his life is to be extinguished, he awakens in a hospital bed in London. Only, it’s London in 2003. There, members of a society called the Guild have been awaiting his arrival, and transport him to a boot camp of sorts where new travelers convene to learn the ropes of their newfound abilities. Just as with any organization, the Guild has rules every member must follow: Do not get discovered. Do not tamper with the past. And do not live in the same country as you lived before, as nostalgia and longing is often a catalyst for time traveling. But turning those emotions off proves extremely difficult for Nick.
Meanwhile, the novel focuses on a second lead character, a young woman named Julia Percy living in England in 1815. Julia grew up believing time travel was real, as she often witnessed her grandfather stop, start, and manipulate time. How he was able to do it, exactly, she never knew, and years later after his death, his secret is ruthlessly sought after by a sinister cousin. Julia finally discovers, again in a moment of duress, she was the key to her grandfather’s abilities, because she shares them herself.
Eventually, and inevitably, Nick and Julia’s paths cross, as Nick is recruited by the Guild to jump back in time to investigate a plot of great intrigue. He then, of course, falls in love with Julia. Ridgway's characters are utterly compelling. Her gift for characterization is crucial, as we grow attached to both Nick and Julia separately, and then grow attached to the idea of the two of them together. And when the plot veers off in fantastical directions, Ridgway never loses sight of that crucial human element, that element that grounds the story in real feeling and emotion. By the end, what stands is a classical-feeling romance that is as much Jane Austen as it is Ray Bradbury, which is almost as an incredible feat as time travel itself when you stop and think about it.