Old Man River of No Return: A Steamy Regency Brought to You by Father Time?

THE RIVER OF NO RETURN by Bee Ridgway: A Regency time travel romance that meditates on time as a river, cultural hegemony, and the flow of history

The reluctant hero Time traveler Nick Davenant, an alpha-hero Regency soldier-aristocrat turned 21st-century dilettante artisanal cheese farmer (Vermont, of course), pop culture junkie, and ladies’ man. He unwittingly escaped death on the battlefield at Salamanca by jumping forward in time, but his story really takes off when he’s asked to go back and resume his life as Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown.

The spinster heroine Powerful time-bender Lady Julia Percy. An orphan, she’s left alone following the death of her beloved grandfather. When his heir arrives she stops time in its tracks to narrowly escape the violent rage of this mad cousin, and then must learn the how and why of her unusual talents.

The setting Mainly London, 1815, but we also get to travel with Nick to 2003 and experience what happens when he first arrives in the 21st century, along with some of his travels in present-day Europe and America.

The tropes Regency lord with badass military experience, and battle trauma; Bluestocking spinster raised by eccentric and intellectual grandfather; Hero & heroine have shared brief yet compelling childhood encounter; Orphaned heroine at the mercy of villainous relative; Hero’s female relations offer heroine refuge and sisterhood, placing her under hero’s protection; Virginal heroine & reformed libertine hero; Heroine & hero as partners and crime-stoppers.

Islands in the Stream A lot of reviews of this book talk about its masterful blend of genres, from science fiction & fantasy, to romance and historical fiction, to adventure/suspense. And they’re right – The River of No Return is one of those books that’s impossible to pigeonhole. It’s a river with many tributaries. Which is one of the things I like most about it. It’s like a literary, tightly structured Outlander with a dash of the Pink Carnation and Amazing Grace (the film). Here’s how I break it down:

Steamy Regency Of course my starting point is the romance genre, and Julia and Blackdown are a couple with just the right amount of conflict, misperceptions and chemistry. We see them together only in the 19th century, but this is after Blackdown has spent a decade in 21st century America, wearing jeans and hooking up in bars. There’s something utterly sublime about the way Ridgway weaves together his two-fold responses to Julia, revealing his struggle to act the proper Regency lord while undoubtedly imagining what she’d look like in jeans or a bikini. But the romance offers an emotionally satisfying journey in its own right, as Julia moves from distrust to transparency and Blackdown learns her secrets. Strong dialogue and good conversation are the surefire way to draw me in to a romance, and I loved the layers of meaning embedded in their repartee.  As for the steamy part, it’s understated and erotic, not terribly explicit. But there is tangible sizzle, and one of the least icky, most effectively sexy recitations of the oft-used Elegy 20 from John Donne I’ve encountered.

Father Time As time travel Fantasy, The River of No Return is more conceptual than literal, and the world-building is sketched in only as much as necessary to convey the vision of history as a river through which people, via innate powers combined with powerful emotion and occasional talismanic objects, can move both forward and back. I’ve read some time travel romance but not very much SF/F, so I’ll tread carefully here. It seemed to me as I was reading that Ridgway’s construction of the river of time was – appropriately – fluid, and less about a mind-blowing time machine or time travel concept than about what happens when a powerful elite controls access to history and knowledge. There are two opposing time-controlling factions, with strident political differences regarding the use of time-stopping, history-altering powers. Each group has heroes, leaders, intelligence operatives & counter spies. Julia’s grandfather turns out to be a pivotal father figure for the ‘revolutionary’ Ofan, while Nick is embraced and set on his intelligence mission by the leaders of the entrenched and reactionary Guild.

In contrast to time travel romances where either the hero or heroine has traveled to a distant century and spends most of the book having comical reactions to newfangled contraptions or old-fashioned ideas, Ridgway exercises restraint in developing Nick as Blackdown’s 21st century TV-loving persona. Cleverer by far to whisk him to our time at the beginning of the novel, just long enough to be indoctrinated by the Guild, cram his head full of pop culture, and absorb the ironclad rule There Is No Going Back, and then plunge him back into his own 19th century life where he’s not ridiculously out of step but subtly and importantly modernized. Thus most of the novel takes place in Blackdown’s original time, and only at the very end do we learn where, and when, Julia is really from.  As a longtime romance reader I also very much appreciated that the time traveling hero was not a hunky medieval Scotsman, much as I appreciate a man in a kilt. In spite of the comedic restraint, however, there are some hilarious moments when Nick’s devotion to pop culture gets the better of Blackdown and I found myself chortling madly when he and a fellow traveler serenade Julia, on the run in a tumbledown barn in 1815, with Islands in the Stream, complete with fist-up pretend microphones.

Political History  The River of No Return contains a clear and nuanced account, from multiple perspectives, of the political and social upheaval in England after the Napoleonic Wars, when lands were enclosed, factories were on the rise, and the Corn Laws were debated. On the one hand there are Blackdown’s sister Clare and her friend Jem Jemison, attempting to democratize the distribution of land and labor on the family estate, and on the other hand Blackdown’s peers in the House of Lords, unashamedly cooking the books to pass laws that will prop up their own estates at the expense of their laborers. It’s woven into the narrative organically, so it doesn’t feel like an info dump, but it’s like a real-history case study for the larger point the book makes about cultural hegemony and the ruthlessness with which a ruling elite will seek to hold on to power and increase its wealth. Amazinggraceposter.jpgThis is the part that reminded me of Amazing Grace, an amazing film starring Ioann Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, leading a bitterly contested campaign to outlaw the slave trade in Britain. It’s a view of Parliament from a few decades before the Corn Bill debates, but if you haven’t seen it, you should, for all kinds of reasons (did I mention it’s Ioann Gruffudd?).

Good vs. Evil The suspense plot pits the Ofan vs. the Guild, and plays upon the trope of a secret organization bent on world domination while another equally secret, but more democratic and sympathetic, organization tries to keep the playing field level.  There’s a Talisman both groups seek to understand or control, which could be an object, but may actually be a person. My favorite part of this element of the book was the notion that these organizations would choose a particular moment in time — in this case 1815 London — and make of it a sort of safe house and meeting place for operatives and members. I guess I just like the idea of a bunch of people hanging out at Almack’s or Gunter’s, who are really Vikings from 800 AD or disco queens from 1984.

Is There Really No Return? I understand a sequel may be in the works, but I appreciated that The River of No Return offered an HEA for Blackdown and Julia. There was a lot about other characters and their respective roles with the Guild and the Ofan that was left unresolved, and I would be very very intrigued to read a follow-up novel that focused on Clare and mysterious Jem Jemison. For me the most appealing thing about this book was the playful way Ridgway approached the crafting of a literary romance novel. She even gave Nick and Julia – holding hands and jumping into the river of time together – a perfect theme song from the ’80s.

Islands in the stream

That is what we are

No one in between

How can we be wrong

Sail away with me to another world

And we rely on each other… etc.  (@ the Bee Gees, 1983)

I love a book that tosses the poetry of the Bee Gees in with John Donne. And just because it’s so incredibly fabulous, I’m making a second link to the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton video of this song.

The River of No Return is a 2013 release from Dutton; it is available in the usual formats and places. I read a copy borrowed from my local library, but I’m planning on snapping up a copy of the paperback which is due out soon.

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Please Do Not Touch

FORBIDDEN….. About Touching Things You’re Not Supposed To, and When Heroes are Better in Someone Else’s Story

Elgin Marbles

Name:  Jordan Willis, auburn-haired Earl of Blackmore; by day he crusades for social reforms in Parliament, by night he’s busy winning the affections of the bored wives and widows of the ton.

Falls For: Prim yet proper rector’s daughter Miss Emily Fairchild, blackmailed into posing as wild Scottish debutante Lady Emma Campbell.

forbidden lordStory Recounted By:  Sabrina Jeffries, in The Forbidden Lord (1999)

Hangs Out In: Parliament, the British Museum, clubs, the opera (London 1819)

Likes: merry “uncomplicated” widows, social reform, his militant sister Sara.

Dislikes: falling in love (but he does fall in the end, and there’s quite a lot of heat along the way!)

Badass Hero Moment: Arranges sizzling hands-on private encounter with the Elgin Marbles, newly displayed at the British Museum.  “I’m a trustee of the museum…”

Badass Annoying Moment: Insists throughout that he doesn’t believe in love, that his heart remains untouchable and his desire for our heroine is purely physical, yet proves his emotions are deeply involved — and confused — when he’s all too willing to believe the worst of her.

(too) Frequently Described As: Controlled.

Might Look Like:  Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth in the 2007 PBS Persuasion.. ?

capt wentworth

To Read Or Not To Read?  This is the middle book in the Lord trilogy, and, like the other two, it’s a bit of a romp, with occasional interludes of character development revealing painful histories and inner emotions.  A fun read largely because SJ does such a good job building the ever-intensifying sexual attraction between Jordan and Em(ma)ily. There are evil, scheming relatives and unsuitable suitors all over the place getting in the way of the HEA, but there is connection and chemistry to get them past these obstacles. Usually false identity “uncanny double” storylines are irritating because you can’t believe the hero/ine doesn’t realize the deception sooner, but in this case we get that out of the way quickly, which is a relief.  Blackmore is nothing if not keenly observant when it comes to women.

The odd thing is that I think I found Jordan more compelling, and even more sexy, as Sara’s ruthless brother in Book 1 of the Trilogy than in his own book, where his edge seems blunted by the plot device that drives the central conflict — his insistence that he doesn’t “believe in love” just comes off as annoying and repetitive.forbidden

This trilogy from a decade or so ago was reissued by Avon and I think if Steamy Regency is your thing, this fits the bill quite nicely. Lord’s sake, I could not stop reading in spite of it being neither the steamiest, nor the funniest, of its ilk!  (And I’m not sure why, but I think in this case I actually like the old cover better…)

elgin_marblesTangentially Related … and Possibly Diverting:

Arrival, Exhibition and Early Reception of the Elgin Marbles in London, from APOLLO.

These iconic fragments of classical Greek sculpture were removed from the Parthenon in Athens in the 1790’s and brought to London. Controversy over this looting/appropriation/rescue (you decide) raged even then, and they were not displayed publicly until after 1816, but they remain in London today and the controversy over where they belong continues.  It could just be the erstwhile art historian in me, but the scene in the Museum where they’re alone together with their hands all over the freaking Elgin Marbles really got my attention. All that forbidden touching!!

Pamela Poll:  Who are your favorite secondary character heroes? Have you ever been disappointed when they seemed less Badass in their own book?

BONUS QUESTION:  Have you ever touched something in a museum that was off-limits?