Fifty-One by Chris Barnham

Fifty-One

Chris Barnham

Filles Vertes Publishing

320 pages

Review: Georgina Merry

From the near future to the blitz, Barnham’s time travel escapade is a smooth blend of romance, espionage, and intrigue. If you want hard sci-fi, this isn’t the book to choose. However, if you love mystery, conspiracies, and vintage settings, look no further.

 

Time travel is a reality in 2040, and OffTime is in the business of policing the past. In full possession of the Darnell Jump, the only means of time travel, agents are tasked with preventing history-altering interventions, while those higher up safeguard the intel. When senior agent Jake Wesson and his team are sent to stop Churchill’s assassination in 1941, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Just a routine jump for a reliable crew. Jake’s long-term partner Hannah is an old hand at time travel, as is his best friend Lew, and while Nancy is new to the job, she’s already proven herself capable. Soon after their arrival in war-torn London, the group split, and Jake encounters Amy Jenkins. Jake’s relationship with Hannah is on the rocks, and his head is quickly turned by the bright young woman. Nevertheless, he continues with his mission and bids Amy farewell. When the group reconvenes, they’re puzzled as to how their actions have saved Churchill, but consider their objective achieved. En route to jump home, there’s an unexpected air raid, and Jake’s separated from the others. Stranded in 1943, he soon realises OffTime have lost track of him.

There’s plenty to enjoy in this book, but there are a couple of elements which scream cliché. The tired trope of the older man rejecting his partner for a feisty younger model is the only part that’s particularly boring. In fact, it’s relied upon as a plot device for creating the primary antagonist. The characters are believable enough, though. While it’s obvious Jake is intended to appear complicated and flawed, it’s impossible to respect him in light of the way he treats Hannah. Hannah is basic, which is disappointing. Other than moping about and turning spiteful in her actions, there’s scant else to her. A woman of her age and intelligence wouldn’t be so two-dimensional or have such a rudimentary story arc. Even if she was driven by bitterness, why couldn’t she be the one to uncover OffTime’s secret? Discover what’s revealed to Lew in the info dump at the end? The suspense of knowing what was happening through the eyes of the antagonist might have been slightly more exhilarating than the hackneyed fury of a woman scorned. As for the love interest, Amy is portrayed as Hannah’s opposite. She’s friendly, cheerful, but unremarkable. We’re given a pretty girl who, regardless of being the embodiment of the can-do grin-and-bear-it attitude typical of her era, is rarely involved in any action. The romance between her and Jake is sweet and built up over time, but it’s difficult to understand what they see in each other.

Lew is probably the most complex character of the bunch, and given how he’s positioned in the prologue, it was tempting to root for him in place of Jake. The book opens from Lew’s perspective, not Jake’s.  Then, the resolution is presented entirely again from Lew’s point of view. It’s a stylistic choice I’m not convinced works, but it’s a minor objection in an otherwise stylish tale. The film noir prose and slow-mounting tension are reminiscent of a detective mystery, and the pace is well matched. Tech talk is kept to a minimum but the world-building, past and future, is believable. The depiction of wartime London is authentic and clearly well-researched, and the future-scape is handled with a light touch, using inference instead of descriptions. There were no points when the settings seemed far-fetched.

The plot, on the other hand, had my disbelief suspended on a twenty-foot tightrope by the skin of its teeth. Upon coming across one plot hole shortly after the midpoint, I set aside my quibble in the hope it would be resolved. It wasn’t. However, the book ends on a whopper of a temporal paradox that’s hard to overcome. If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, then it’s all good.

 

All things considered, Fifty-One is a fun read. In spite of its realistic depiction of wartime London, it is bona fide escapism. It’s easy to get through and great for fans of sci-fi genre-blends. What’s more, it’s perfect for anyone seeking to take a break from the real world.