We’ve all had that moment when we realize our parents had a life before us, but it’s safe to say that in Alexandra Bracken’s exciting new YA novel, Passenger, 17-year-old violin prodigy Etta Spencer’s epiphany about her mom is more astonishing than most.
As the story begins, Etta finds her mother, Rose, hard to connect with at best. But after a sudden, supremely shocking series of events, Etta realizes there’s a lot more going on behind her mother’s stoic demeanor than she could’ve imagined. Rose is a time traveler, which Etta learns after discovering she’s a time traveler, too.
Following said shocking events, Etta wakes up on a wooden ship, surrounded by oddly dressed men with old-fashioned accents. One of them is a handsome, highly capable young seaman and freed slave named Nicholas Carter.
Upon deducing that no, this isn’t weird performance art, and she’s definitely not in present-day New York City anymore, Etta struggles to accept her new reality—which is occurring in the 1700s on the Atlantic Ocean. She discovers that Rose has been on the run from a power-hungry, wealthy old man named Cyrus Ironwood who wants her to return something he believes she’s stolen. Etta embarks on a bizarre, mystifying, dangerous new chapter of her life, searching with Nicholas for the stolen object as they travel through centuries and continents. Her understanding of her place in the world broadens and evolves as she discovers more about her mother’s past and its repercussions for her own future.
“I’ve loved history my whole life,” Bracken says during a call from her Virginia home, but for a long time she had “an idealistic view of time travel. As I’m getting older, I’m realizing that [women would be] subjected to the standards of an era, and time travel wouldn’t be a joyful thing for people unless they go into the future.”
Etta, her mother and other female time travelers are just as savvy as men when finding portals, dodging pursuers and the like, but Etta still contends with outdated views of women as she travels into centuries past. And the powerful, time-traveling Ironwood family still adheres to antiquated and classist views of station and bloodlines, despite their extraordinary ability to visit more modern, egalitarian times.
Equally compelling is Nicholas’ situation. He’s also under the megalomaniacal thumb of the wealthy Cyrus, yet is highly respected by his colleagues and moves freely through time and geography. He is determined to break free of Cyrus once he and Etta fulfill their dangerous quest—if that’s even possible.
“Slaves were victims of history, but I didn’t want Nicholas to have the opinion he was a victim,” says Bracken. “I wanted him to be very self-sufficient, and ultimately the person who’s saving himself, with none of the white-savior complex.”
This is just a fraction of the goings-on in Passenger, which is densely and deftly packed with all sorts of thrilling events and memorable characters. As each chapter closes, readers will certainly wonder where—and when—Etta and Nicholas will end up next.
And how did Bracken end up here, at age 28 with six books (and counting) to her name? After publishing her debut, Brightly Woven, in 2010, Bracken published four more books over the next five years, including her bestselling Darkest Minds trilogy, all while working in children’s publishing in New York City. When she was tapped to write a middle-grade Star Wars movie tie-in, Star Wars: A New Hope: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy, she admits to being a bit nervous—Star Wars fans are known for their passion and protectiveness—but ultimately felt very welcomed by the community. “A dad came up to me after a panel [at a pop-culture convention] and said his daughter will be so excited to see a girl’s name on the cover,” Bracken says.
Bracken was also a bit apprehensive about a certain aspect of Passenger: Etta’s budding romance with Nicholas. “I was so nervous to make the jump to this book because it’s so different from the Darkest Minds series,” she says. “The romance is definitely really different. But if I did the same kind of story and characters over and over again, I’d be bored, and readers would be bored.”
There’s no chance of that with Passenger. Bracken’s rules for time travel are fun to encounter and untangle, and the far-flung centuries and locations—Bhutan, the U.K. and Syria, to name a few—are rich with vibrant detail. Etta’s determination to carry out her mission, have a relationship with Nicholas (she’s not averse to kissing him first, should her mood dictate) and use her powerful gift for good makes her a symbol of potential positive change, while also pitting her against those who want to keep things the same. And that’s all we’ll say about that, lest we spoil the complex, multilayered, time traveling, globetrotting fun.
In terms of her own future, Bracken has big things—and a lot of writing—ahead. The second book in the Passenger duology, Wayfarer, is due out in 2017. And the day before she spoke with BookPage, her four-book deal with Disney Publishing was announced, including a new series for middle graders, a standalone YA novel and one more hush-hush book.
“It feels like a dream,” Bracken says. “But if I ever stop writing and don’t sell another book, I’m really proud of the little stack I’ve put out into the world.”
That stack’s going to keep growing for now, and Bracken’s glad to know what lies ahead. “It’s really exciting to be gainfully employed for the next four years!” she says. And really exciting for her readers, knowing there are many more wildly inventive, eminently entertaining books to come.