Time travel has been a popular mechanic in story telling since H G Wells penned The Time Machine, and with good reason. It enables the author to explore any age – past, present or future – and thus expose their characters to any kind of story imaginable. Yet time travel stories are also incredibly difficult to write as they can easily leave themselves open to gaping plot holes. This is what I am here to talk about today

TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow is a series of science fiction novels that revolve around three teenagers who are recruited into an agency that polices the flow of time, bringing justice to all those who would tamper with history. The series is planned to span nine novels – TimeRiders (2010), Day of the Predator (2010), The Doomsday Code (2011), The Eternal War (2011), Gates of Rome (2012), City of Shadows (2012), The Pirate Kings (2013), The Mayan Prophecy (2013) and The Infinity Cage (due for release November 2014). For the purpose of today’s review, I will just be looking at the first novel.

Following the deaths of the rest of his team Foster, the last surviving operative of the Agency, ventures into time to recruit three new people who have the skills to succeed them. Approaching each as they reach the end of their natural life (Liam drowning on the Titanic, Maddy in a plane crash in 2010 and Sal in a fire in 2026) he offers them the choice to die or join him.

At the Agency’s base in New York (2001), Foster begins to teach each of them the skills they need in order to mount a successful operation through time. However, before he can finish their training, the world around them suddenly changes. The city as they know it disappears in an instant and is replaced by a totalitarian dystopia. One of their enemies has gotten hold of a time machine and used it to alter the past, ensuring that the Nazis won World War II and proceeded to take over the world.

Liam is transported back through time in an attempt to uncover at what point in the War the diversion took place. However, before he can return, history changes again. The New York City of 2001 suddenly becomes a desolate wasteland and, with no power, Maddy and Sal find themselves unable to bring their friend back to the present. Now unable to communicate with each other, the two teams must try to find a way to send a message across time in order to put the past back the way it should be.

There are a couple of different ways to approach a time travel plot. Of these, the most difficult to write is the dynamic timeline. This is the kind of time travel story that shows every change made in the past as having a noticeable impact on the present. If you don’t take care while writing this kind of plot, you will quickly find that your work is full of paradoxes. The famous example of this is the grandfather paradox – the idea that if you were to go back in time and kill your grandfather, you would never have been born and therefore could never have gone back in time in the first place. TimeRiders adheres to this theory of time travel and unfortunately falls prey to its share of errors.

As a training exercise, Foster and Liam travel to Dallas in 1963 and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating JFK. The result in the present is instantaneous – JFK is still alive and has become a much loved figure, spearheading a program which has resulted in a manned mission to Mars. However, back in 1963, JFK is shot by an assassin standing on the grassy knoll seconds later and the present immediately reverts back to the way it was. The more you think about this, the less sense it makes. If JFK is always destined to die in Dallas, why would the present ever show a world where he survived? Also, if Foster uses this as a regular training exercise as he claims, why are there not a huge queue of former TimeRiders, waiting to scare off Lee Harvey Oswald?

A lot of the time travel theory in TimeRiders seems to have similar problems. Although it seems to make sense at a glance, once you pluck at a thread the whole thing begins to unravel. If the Nazis sweep the world following their World War II victory, Maddy and Sal probably would never have existed in their current forms. Indeed, once the present day reverted into a nuclear wasteland, you would think that the two of them would be very dead. Although I tried to rationalise this in my head by saying that somehow they were protected while they were in the Agency’s headquarters (although I don’t remember this ever being specified), Sal was still outside when the timeline first changed and therefore you would have thought that she would have been affected by it in some way.

I also found the unoriginality of TimeRiders to be somewhat irritating. As I mentioned before, time travel plots are exciting because they allow authors to write any kind of story. Why is it then that all time travel plots seem to fixate on Nazis and the JFK assassination? Is there something about these two historical events that means that people are prepared to read about them time and time again, or are they just a security blanket for an unadventurous writer? At least Scarrow has gotten both out of the way in this volume and so hopefully he will be a bit more adventurous next time.

Yet, despite the flaws in its logic, the story was at least very fast paced and full of action. The chapters are very short – often only being three or four pages long – and this helped make the novel feel very streamlined. Although often very violent and not always pleasant to read, the story kept my interest throughout. From the point where the power went out, I was curious to discover how history would eventually be righted. The eventual conclusion was also highly satisfying, tying the story neatly together into a coherent ending. It was nice to see that no loose ends were left hanging as it is always frustrating to reach the end of a story to find a cliff-hanger.

The characters also all had very different personalities, but some received a lot more development than others. Liam, particularly through his interactions with Bob (the team’s “meat robot” support unit), grew into a very strong and compassionate person and certainly received the best character arc of the three. I wasn’t sure why the author felt the need to keep having him say “Jay-zus” to remind us that he spoke with an Irish accent, but other than that I really enjoyed reading the chapters about him. The two girls, unfortunately, were a bit bland.

Sal did not really do anything in the story and only really received my sympathy because she was so young. Maddie, on the other hand, remained detestable throughout. Support units like Bob are grown like test tube babies and yet Maddie always treated them as being sub-human – even joking when the test tubes are broken and all of the partially developed clones are killed. I suppose that this is intended to be a kind of pro-choice style commentary but it still seemed a little disrespectful – particularly as these jokes were made in front of Sal who was deeply upset by the death of the clones.

It was surprising that none of the characters really succumb to culture shock. Despite the fact that Liam was born in the 19th Century, he adapts almost immediately to 21st Century New York. Additionally, none of the main characters ever make any reference to their parents. One would think that they would be sad that they’d never see their friends and family again but, no, it seems that it does not bother them at all.

So, what’s my verdict? Well, the plot is entertaining enough for brain-in-the-box entertainment and it certainly is an exciting read, but once you start picking at the plot threads it starts to rapidly show holes. The principle cast – with the exception of Liam – also receive little development and thus were rather forgettable. For a science fiction fan, TimeRiders is a relatively satisfying quick read but I found it to be decidedly average overall.

TimeRiders can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

3 Comments (+add yours?)

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