Paris Adrift by EJ Swift
Published - 6th February
Publisher - Rebellion
Paperback - £9.99
I thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review
Determined to escape her old life, misfit and student geologist Hallie picks up her life in England and heads to Paris. She falls in with the eclectic expat community as a bartender at the notorious Millie’s, located next to the Moulin Rouge. Here she meets Gabriela, a bartender who guides her through this strange nocturnal world, and begins to find a new family. But Millie’s is not all that it seems: a bird warns Hallie to get her feathers in order; a mysterious woman shows up claiming to be a chronometrist; and Gabriela is inexplicably unable to leave Paris. Then Hallie discovers a time portal located in the keg room. Over the next nine months, irate customers will be the least of her concerns; as she navigates time-faring through the city’s turbulent past and future, falling in love, and coming to terms with her own precarious sense of self.
There comes a time when you leave school or university; move out of the family home or student digs and then face that big question – what the hell do I do now? Not everyone has that amazing career plan or driving ambition; many of us are just stilling working out who we are. We will float around but then sometimes a certain job or group of new work colleagues will slot around us – people we may not immediately have had much in common with but the experiences we share with them give us that first opportunity to start being a fully-fledged adult. In this fantastic story EJ Swift gives us a tale that captures that moment in everyone’s lives when we find that place and what would happen if you add in the ability to time travel with world-ending consequences if it all goes wrong.
The story starts in the far future of 2318 and it is almost all over. A cataclysm is slowly destroying the last remaining areas of humanity and a group known as the House of Janus have one last gamble. A set of Anomalies exist around the world throughout time and each with one owner who gets the ability to travel through time based around that entry point. It’s known that around the turn of the twenty first century an anomaly will be in Paris and that it’s owner may have the ability to change things before it’s too late. The group arrange for it’s oldest member The Chronometrist to go and find and train her.
Skip backward circa 300 years (time-travel my friends) and we meet Hallie a young English student(ish) who has decided to leave the UK and just be someone else. As many have found this means night shift work at a bar. No family, little grasp of French and no previous experience but works for minimum wage so she gets the job. But then she sees ghosts of herself; a talking bird warn her that something is awake, and her shifts just escalate from there…
If you are looking for a hard SF view of time travel, then this isn’t the book for you. The anomalies that lurk around the world are not really explained beyond the core purpose; although they are certainly shown to have some form of sentience and possibly even a sense of ownership do not expect the science to be taught. Nor is this book going to give you a detailed sense of Paris throughout the ages. Instead you’re going to get a story that uses SF to talk about life and in a wider sense our culture. It’s the experience of being in an unfamiliar world where you must decide how to live for yourself that is the more important element in the story but being in a strange place does allow you to try everything!
The early part of the book puts a great emphasis on Hallie and her present-day life. She is clearly feeling lost and running away from her life. Prone to panic attacks; evasive about her past and low in confidence. If you’ve ever had that moment of ‘what’s next?’ then this rings so true and that’s why the focus on Millie’s and the rest of the bar crew, she meets is done. From that moment you find your other geeks who watch the same SF show to you; when you realise that although all these people come from different backgrounds and countries they can still actually all bond in the face of a busy shift facing off to demanding customers. I love a found family story and Swift has really captured that sense of camaraderie you get at your first workplace that you enjoy which slowly rubs off on you so at some point you’re the old hand helping the newcomers. We see Hallie realise that everyone has a past they’re also aimlessly running from. Each member of the shift comes alive from the philosopher to the guy happier to dance on the bar in his underwear. Watching Hallie grow and bond with the team is something that really feels true and adds a lot of soul to the novel.
Of course, once you add in time travel everything gets even more interesting! Initially it adds a sense of terror. Hallie sees ghosts of herself influencing tiny elements of her shift but most chillingly is the Chronometrist. The oldest time traveller with an anomaly has become incorporeal and possesses people. You could be walking down the street or in a bar and suddenly a strange person will start talking to you and its clear they know far more about you than you do. She’s a chilling character and its not clear she is acting purely to Hallie’s benefit. But at the same time the anomaly’s power is seductive. Hallie initially must work out how she can survive stranded in 1875 and through a chance encounter with an expat from London also looking at surviving they find a way to support each other. By later trips Hallie starts to decide to at for others and again there is a running theme of deciding what’s the right thing to do. Can Hallie give up on perpetual experiences of the past and not focus on her future?
Alongside this there is a look at the wider world. These days it’s not hard to believe an apocalypse is possible and we see eventually a fledgling political movement that says there may be a way forward through ideas of helping others at a local level. Hallie and this group ‘s future/past is tied, and it’s done really imaginatively. We also get a slightly different look at a dystopian future. It’s always tempting just to imagine the traditional wasteland but the scarier one is when you realise some people just like the idea of a shiny, cleaner world with all the ‘disruptive elements’ removed from sight. When you see who the culture has memorialised in the future you will feel a shiver…The question for Hallie is can she decide to stop this? It can feel like the addendum to the main plot in modern Paris but for me it really helps act as a logical conclusion but again if you just want a pre SF thriller this is not that type of book and for me works better because of it.
The story has a nice level of honesty. While Hallie finds the experiences, she lives through empowering they are also painful, tragic and won’t heal everything or everyone you care about. But you will always find in life you will have moments you decide what is the best thing to do right now. I thought this was one of the most thoughtful and emotional stories considering Time travel I’ve read in a long time and that feeling of learning independence is captured perfectly. I really think if you want a science fiction story with a lot of heart and character then this is one you need to read right now.