The River of No Return
Dutton / April 23, 2013 / $27.95 print, $14.99 digital
“You are now a member of the Guild. There is no return.”
Two hundred years after he was about to die on a Napoleonic battlefield, Lord Nicholas Falcott wakes up in a hospital bed in twenty-first century London. The Guild, a secretive organization that controls time travel, helps him make a new life in the modern world.
But Nick yearns for home and for one beautiful woman in particular, now lost to history.
Back in 1815, that very woman, Julia Percy, finds herself the guardian of a family secret inherited from her enigmatic grandfather... how to manipulate time. But there are those who seek to possess Julia’s power and she begins to realize she is in the gravest peril.
The Guild’s rules are made to be broken, and Nick discovers how to travel back to the nineteenth century and his ancestral home. Fate and the fraying fabric of time draw Nick and Julia together once again . . . soon enough, they are caught up in an adventure that puts the future of the world into their hands.
Bee Ridgway’s The River of No Return is an unusual book: part romance, part historical, and part science fiction. I enjoyed two things about it in particular: first, the ways in which Ridgway critically interrogated how we write about the past in genre fiction; and second, the story’s unpredictability—for much of the novel, I was genuinely unsure what direction it would go next, which meant I kept turning pages. These two things go together.
When I read a novel set in Regency England, I have certain expectations of it. To have those expectations challenged is remarkably refreshing, and made me think about books that do follow my expectations in a new light.
The most obvious example of what I’m talking about is Nick. The story begins with him having grown comfortable living two hundred years in his own future. I loved how he is forced to deal with being, essentially, a Regency romance character in a modern world. I was reminded of Jennifer Stevenson’s hero Lord Randall from The Brass Bed, who is also out of time, though he is treated in a more humorous fashion.
Nick feels both angst and sardonic humor about his situation.
Two hundred years were hard to hide, even in casual relationships. He realized now that when his lovers accused him of being “uptight” or “emotionally distant,” what they meant was that he was weirder than even an eccentric Englishman should be. American women would overlook a great deal in a passably good-looking British boyfriend. But eventually they began to pry, wanting explanations.
His terrible scars? A car accident, he said. He had been in a car accident, but the scars were obviously war wounds. Hence his avoidance of women who were doctors or nurses. The scar that cut across one eyebrow was dashing and ambiguous enough, but the jagged saber cut up his left thigh was heavily punctuated where the wound had been tied up with thick catgut. Roping his left shoulder, a scar from a gunshot wound. It was the ugliest scar of all, because of the infection that had set in. There were other, more subtle oddities. The flourishes of his signature were neither manly nor timely. Then there were his antiquated tastes in food. This very evening, as she ate the glorious camembert, the cheese inspector had reminisced about Oreos and milk and then she had gone on to sing a TV jingle about them. Nick had no favorite childhood commercials, and he craved boiled mutton, beef jelly, blancmange, and bits of pig, pickled.
…All his skills were obsolete. Slaughtering Frenchmen; ignoring the stench of open sewers; dressing in absurdly tight clothing; seducing the buxom, sleepy-eyed daughters of innkeepers. Useless talents in this slick and modern present. These days Frenchmen were nice and unavailable for slaughter. Pretty women were skinny and looked at a single man like Nick with starving intensity, as if he were a piece of low-fat cheese.
When Nick returns to the past, he is upended once again; he has to act as his past self while constantly conflicted by his knowledge of future moral codes, which he’s accepted and grown to like. His different selves affect his decisions, including how he approaches Julia, making their relationship anything but predictable.
Julia, in contrast, is very much of her time, yet has an upbringing that sets her apart. That and her secret abilities make her a heroine who is hindered by society in some ways, and remarkably free in others. She and the other women in the novel have to learn how to work within their constraints to achieve their goals, adding additional tension to the plot. It’s notable that no one gives power to the historical women in this book outright; they have to gather scraps of knowledge where and how they can. This is another tension between Julia and Nick, because power is casually given to Nick over and over again, an acute difference in their status.
Though only the latter half of the novel focuses on the romance between Nick and Julia, it’s constantly foreshadowed in the first half, and once they meet again, their attraction is gripping. They have romantic tension as well as social tension and tension that’s tied in to the time travel aspect of the story. Each of them has an important part to play in the plot, and I look forward to seeing how their romance will continue to play out in the sequel.
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