My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I stay away from espionage. I also (at least in my own writing) tend to stay away from time-travel. Things get far too complicated too quickly, and it’s all I can do to try to wrap my mind around the paradoxes inherent in even a simple time loop. I also– to my shame– tend to avoid twentieth-century history in particular and American history in general in my own work, which revolves around astronomy in the 1800s. The Rewind Files, by Claire Willett, involves all of these.
On the other hand though, I do love a good scifi yarn.
In this instance, I was in no way disappointed.
Claire, who among other really cool things has written plays on the history of astronomy, has quite simply written a very smart, very compelling, very impressive 20th-century, time-travel, espionage adventure. It fits together beautifully, it has dizzying twists and turns, and it has sharp characters with crackling dialogue. It’s just really, really good.
But that’s not a very insightful review, so let me try to unpack that a bit.
First, let’s start with the nuts and bolts: the history and the time-travel. I’m embarrassed by how little I know about my own nation’s history and in particular the Watergate scandal, which forms the historical backdrop to this misadventure. But it’s clear Claire has done her research– and not simply as a dutiful student but as someone who is passionately interested in the characters and the narrative of these events. She doesn’t just make this history come alive: she plays with it, dances around it, and makes it give her a quick peck on the cheek. But it works because she knows what she’s talking about. And she loves what she’s talking about.
Now the time-travel: this is where she gives even classic popular time travel treatments like Back to the Future or pick your favorite Babylon 5 story-arch a run for its money. All the loops (and there are several of them) get tied up and make all of the questions from earlier make sense. All of the snakes bite their own tails quite nicely. And the complexity of the time-hops and transporting (superimposed on the additional complexity of a branch of the government dedicated to preserving the integrity of the timeline) is handled with the dexterity of someone fluent in technobabble: creating a system of constraints and then playing fairly within it but also surprising the reader. I might even use the term elegant.
But those are the nuts and bolts of a good episode of Dr. Who: what about the things important in a novel, characters and plot? Claire gets awards for writing plays, so you’re in good hands here as well. The plot is solid, and though I admit it was a bit slow to start, a) by the time the penny dropped about halfway through I was hooked and couldn’t put it down for the rest of the novel and b) my confusion in the first half from getting dropped right into things cleared up with the reveals in the second half. As soon as Gemstone hits, we don’t get another breath until the end of the book. The twists are satisfying because though nothing is out of left field (you have some inkling of some of the big reveals), they’re handled in an unexpected manner that makes them all the more effective.
And then there are the characters. I put the book down several times while I was reading and told my wife, “You have to meet Reggie.” Claire’s main character is nearly flawless (not as a person, but as a character). She’s snarky, self-deprecating, and competent. She loves her family, all of whom play a major role in the action. The cadre of time-bandits Claire builds up around Reggie are the most endearing part of the story, and more than anything else you get the sense that all the deftly-handled history and time-twists are more than anything to give these characters a fascinating canvas to run around on. You like Reggie, but more than anything else you believe in Reggie.
The Rewind Files being a time-travel odyssey of course could have a sequel tacked on, though it’s more structured to allow a prequel or even a concurrent novel following the exploits of Reggie’s famous father. I don’t know if I want this though. I want Reggie and her friends to have an enduring happy ending, one no longer threatened by major distortions in the timeline.
More than anything, I just want Claire to create some more characters and do this again– only completely different this time.