By Ann Brashares.
Prenna James is a 17-year-old from the year 2098, currently living in the year 2014. In her time, everything is terrible, everyone is broke and starving, and everyone is dying off of a mosquito-borne plague. After losing her two younger brothers, Prenna's parents joined up with a bunch of 900+ people in their area of Postremo who went back in time to the year 2010 to live the rest of their lives in a much more pleasant environment. Prenna's dad mysteriously "didn't make it," which reasonably makes her suspicious. Because the Community she's part of has a lot of strict rules, and people who don't obey them are killed. Now don't get me wrong, a fair number of the rules are reasonable-ish by time traveler standards, such as never getting outside medical treatment even if it means you die of cancer because they can't let on that they're from another time and have different immunities. There's also the rule about not getting intimate with anyone who's a time native--the 2098 folks could pass something on to those people and it might kill them. Nobody's allowed to date outside of their community (I was kind of reminded of how supposedly people who grew up together just don't get the hots for each other) or have kids or do anything that will further interfere with how time has played out. And yet, they have to blend in and make friends (and watch episodes of Friends to work on cultural assimilation--though that seems like a bit old of a reference for 2010 teens) and keep the secret--and they are constantly monitored and interrogated about their interactions at all times. Everyone supposedly came out of the time hole with bad eyesight, and it becomes clear early on that everyone's being monitored via their glasses. It's very reminiscent of a cult, except there's pretty good reasons to insist on a no-serious-interaction policy and Armageddon has already happened for them!
Prenna already knows she's skating close to the edge of trouble. She gets in trouble for things like following a girl for four blocks to ask her about her boots--Prenna had a hand-painted pair in her time that turn up on their original owner--but she's about to really get in trouble. You see, Prenna has a friendship going with Ethan Jarves, who sits next to her in school. Ethan's an incredibly perceptive dude who already knows that Prenna's not the same as everyone else and has figured out that she can't say anything about anything. There's clearly an attraction going on that she just can't act on, even though he wants to. There's a scene early on in which Ethan figures out that Prenna doesn't know any of the card games that kids would know growing up here and he takes that in stride and starts teaching her. I'm describing it bare-bones, but the actual scene is very sweet. But what Prenna also doesn't know (she doesn't remember traveling through time or landing in 2010) is that Ethan saw her arrive in time and has been wondering about her ever since. Plus he's taken up some hardcore interest in science trying to figure it all out, and he's made some interesting scientific connections. He also tends to discuss scientific theory with an old homeless guy that they dubbed "Ben Kenobi."
But one day, Ben Kenobi talks to Prenna, takes her glasses off her face first, and then starts telling her that she needs to prevent a murder that's going to go down on May 17, 2014--and Prenna apparently was found with the numbers 51714 written on her arm after her little time arrival incident. So Ben's also a time traveler? You'll probably guess a bit before Prenna does who he is and how he's here, but Ben, like in the original movie, gives her the quest to track down a situation and try to head it off at the pass before it happens. Because that murder is presumably the one that led to 2098 being a giant deathtrap. While Prenna tries to blow it off while she's being monitored, her "counselor" makes sure to pull her best friend Katherine out of school and town. I'm assuming that's more of a punishment/threat to Prenna more than it is a case of Prenna "contaminating" Katherine, but I'll talk a bit more about that later.
Anyway, Prenna and Ethan ditch the glasses and her meds (which apparently make everyone's eyesight bad) and go on the run to find Ben's stash of newspapers from the time in between now and 2098. They figure out that the murder of a scientist that Ethan knows is what kicked things off, and they make sure that the scientist protects her information before her possible murder. Though it's a bit awkward when they're trying to figure out what the heck to do and who to save. And at one point Prenna finds a (presumably vague and not mentioning how he died) obituary for Ethan for May 17, 2014.
On the good side: this is a super compelling mystery and I raced through reading it, even while I was at my volunteer job and presumably should have been off cleaning or something. The idea behind it is totally fascinating, and I think the author did a pretty good job of planning out how the world went to hell between here and then, and how technology probably changed, and how the dominoes ended up falling. The plot gets started pretty quickly and moves fast. The investigation as to who the first time traveler was and how the plague in 2098 started was also fairly startling, especially given the end results, which I'll talk about below the spoiler cut. Ethan makes an excellent ally to the time travelers, given his knowledge and his ability to ID people, and you do get that he and Prenna have feelings for each other and you can see why that works. I did feel like the romance needed a bit more building--I think we're supposed to assume that Prenna and Ethan have been building sexual chemistry for the last few years that we didn't see, in the one, two, skip a few sort of way. It feels fast to the reader, though. But overall, I don't have too much of a problem with that. And Prenna really comes out of her shell by the end in a way that I'll mention below the spoiler cut. I liked how they discussed the concept of "shooting the moon" in playing Hearts and how it's kind of the opposite of how Prenna's been living her life, i.e. blending in.
On the other hand, after I finished plowing through the book at the speed of light, I started thinking of a lot of little off things here and there. Such as:
- Do the spy glasses only record sound if they are on Prenna's face? Even if you take off her glasses, wouldn't they still be able to get sound? Or is this a future tech thing where they shut off when not on her face?
- We don't get to know Katherine well enough to really care when she's taken from the story, even though we get that Prenna cares about her and wants her back. However, why the hell would you remove Katherine and leave Prenna around to still interact with the folks that nobody wants her interacting with? Even Prenna calls this out in the book as making no sense. They should have been disappearing her/killing her pretty much immediately, except the Idiot Plot Ball had to happen enough so that Prenna would be able to investigate/go on the run longer.
- Ethan knows a lot more about this whole thing, sometimes to the point of "No, seriously, how do you know this?" As in, how do you know this person and that person, and when did that happen? No, seriously, when? I don't mind that Ethan has figured out how to ID time travelers--that makes sense given how he learned about 'em--but other things seemed like a bit of an ass pull.
- I've read some critiques online that Ethan is too sexually pressuring to Prenna. Honestly, I don't know, I feel like I was having a hard time judging this one. Ethan makes a lot of jokes about it but also makes his intention clear that if Prenna ever wants to go that far, he's there at the ready--but he doesn't sound like he'd push her farther than she's willing to go. I was okay with that, especially since in this case the interest in clearly mutual. However, it did seem kind of weird as to how they hedged about talking about having sex. To some degree it seemed a little fast (see above), but also I just wanted to sit them down and make them listen to the "Let's Talk About Sex" song and have them use their words and discuss the practicalities of such a thing happening or not. Come on, guys, you're smart people, no need to hedge. Also, birth control totally needs to be discussed. I don't really think you're just going to skip off into the woods and get laid without issues.
I'm going to do some spoiler space discussion at this point, so continue on if you care. I'm going to give this book three and a half stars--it's gripping, but definitely has some distracting plot flaws here and there as well.