Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) For as long as 17-year-old Alex Wayfare can remember, she has had visions of the past. Visions that make her feel like she’s really on a ship bound for America, living in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or riding the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair.
But these brushes with history pull her from her daily life without warning, sometimes leaving her with strange lasting effects and wounds she can’t explain. Trying to excuse away the aftereffects has booked her more time in the principal’s office than in any of her classes and a permanent place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Alex is desperate to find out what her visions mean and get rid of them.
It isn’t until she meets Porter, a stranger who knows more than should be possible about her, that she learns the truth: Her visions aren’t really visions. Alex is a Descender – capable of traveling back in time by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. Alex is one soul with fifty-six past lives, fifty-six histories.
Fifty-six lifetimes to explore: the prospect is irresistible to Alex, especially when the same mysterious boy with soulful blue eyes keeps showing up in each of them. But the more she descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want Alex to travel again. Ever.
And will stop at nothing to make this life her last.
Thoughts: M G Buehrlen’s YA novel of time travel with a twist is the start of a series that I’m definitely keeping my eye on. It impressed me in multiple ways, from characters struggling with debilitating illness, to trying to wrap one’s mind around the classic time travel paradox, to simple things like good realistic dialogue and character development. True to form for a Strange Chemistry novel, I enjoyed this one a lot, and from this beginning I’ve already come to expect a lot from the author.
The story, as you may have guessed from the title, centres around Alex Wayfare, a teenage girl who has spent nearly all of her life hiding the fact that at seemingly random moments, she disconnects from reality and has very vivid and accurate hallucinations of events in other time periods. She’s an outcast at school, her sister is battling cancer, and if that wasn’t enough, Alex discovers that her hallucinations are actually a form of time travel to her own past lives, where she not only retains consciousness but also has the ability to affect the timeline by not being restricted to that life’s prior actions or decisions. The plot thickens, though, when Alex discovers that her past-life time travel has a more sinister aspect, an aspect which is connected to the prestigious company her own mother works for.
Time travel stories can be really hit-or-miss. Due to things like the time travel paradox (affecting the past in such a way that your current timeline is affected, possibly eliminating your option to travel back in time, which would remove the change, which brings back the timeline that let you go back in time, and so on and so forth), I find stories with that as a plot device tend to be full of internal contradictions and oversights. Fortunately, The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare did not fall prey to this. There was a moment, toward the end, that sent my mind on a bit of a twist, with the implication that through Alex’s actions while traveling to a previous life, she created a divergent timeline, which was in fact the timeline she normally exists on, and that just begs the question of what the timeline is supposed to be, and whether or not it actually exists on another plane. The novel’s a little unclear about multiverse theory when it comes to time travel, though it would be a neat way to wrap up any inconsistencies.
Or I might be reading too much into that. Time and future installments of the series will tell.
For my part, I think the family turmoil was handled quite well. Audrey’s leukemia wasn’t named for a long time, as obvious as her condition was, but rather than make her character a hollow sympathy piece, she was a good character in her own right, exhibiting a different kind of strength than Alex but a strength just the same. There was obvious tension in the family, between Audrey’s cancer and Alex’s secret time-travel, and I found the family connections and interactions were quite well done. Everybody was flawed, everybody was human, sometimes naïve or ignorant or selfish, and it was in the little touches that showed that the characters were developed in the author’s mind far beyond what she got to express in the text.
I admit that I was less fond of the relationship between Alex and Blue, and that was largely due to my dislike of the whole insta-love trope. Granted, unlike many novels that feature this, The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare actually had a reason behind the attraction, but that didn’t do much to endear me to it. It was an interesting way to keep parts of the plot moving, and to motivate Alex to do certain things, but it wasn’t a relationship that I really felt much behind, and so didn’t have much interest in. Perhaps it will grow deeper later on, but it felt too new and undeveloped to inspire anything but mild and distanced curiosity in me. Probably not what the author was going for, and I admit that’s an issue of personal taste rather than storytelling or writing ability. It was still done much better than a lot of insta-love romances.
But really, aside from a couple of niggling little details, the romance is really all I can speak negatively about. The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare is a strong start to a series that promises to keep being interesting. The story is revealed piece by tantalizing piece, information withheld from both Alex and the reader, making that stronger rapport between reader and character that helps people keep wanting to turn pages. Alex herself is a strong and well-developed character with an obstinate nature and an intelligent wit that made me grin more than once, and I can’t wait to read more from her point of view in the future. Recommended for fans of intelligent YA speculative fiction, and those who want good realistic dialogue and introspection from the teenage point of view. Enjoy the feeling of your mind getting lightly twisted as you go.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)