Okay, my very first book review. This one has taken a lot of redrafting and I think it will be awhile before I take on another book.
A time travel story told from the pint of view of Marina, a wealthy teenage girl, and Em, a hardened girl on a mission to change her future by travelling to the past. This YA novel was written by Cristin Terrill and was published in 2013. I recently came across this (by recently I mean many months ago) when I went on a spending spree on the book depository and this title was suggested among other books I was purchasing. Recently it floated to the top of my read pile and I’m really glad I picked this one up.
There’s this thing about YA fiction that I really like (even though I haven’t been by definition a young adult in quite awhile). Mostly it is because I can usually read the books in one or two sittings (or if work is crazy, usually over the course of a week) which means I don’t have to try to hold the details of the story for very long in my head. Also, the books tend to keep things moving mostly because most younger readers don’t have that much of an attention span for slow development. All Our Yesterdays kind of hit both of these marks. I read it in a single 5 hour sitting (yet another power outage lead to the low tech solution for entertainment) and the story moves and moves quick.
It is really hard to explain what is good about this story without revealing too much. As a time travel story, there’s a lot that becomes clear later in the book and really it will kind of take the fun out of the first few chapters if you already know it. I’ll try to avoid overt spoilers but certain events are going to be hinted at.
The story is pretty straight forward for a time travel story. The future is broken and terrible (war, chaos, military rule, etc) and according to Em’s account (it is only her voice and perspective that sheds any light on this future world) there is one person responsible for the mess. Em and Finn, after breaking out of jail, through some paradoxically unlikely set ups with a guard in the past and a note left by previous Em and Finn’s who had tried and failed to change anything, travel back four years to kill the man responsible for all the horrible things that would happen in the future. This of course opens an entire can of worms about the morality of the situation and whether or not the future can be changed (given how many other times the two had tried and other methods, none of which had resulted in a different future given they were still ending up in the same facility and cell to find the note and be released).
Actually the story is pretty addictive. You know where it must be heading early on (if you’ve read any other time travel book I’m sure you are capable of putting the pieces together) and you also know what the ‘reveal’ is going to be well before they deliver it. I’m not going to spoil it because some people might find this an actual twist or development whereas I’d just kind of been waiting for it since the opening chapters. Despite knowing full well where things were going, it was entertaining finding out how we would get there. The ‘reveal’ is obviously supposed to be a surprise given how much emphasis is suddenly placed on some key words as they lead up to the person directly saying something experienced readers will have figured out, and yet you don’t feel like this is pandering. It’s just a way of dramatically building up to a key plot point and whether it is a surprise or not doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a logical development and by revealing the information when they do it allows the story to progress into the climax quite fluidly.
One thing that is a bit odd about this story is the fact that it is written in present tense. I didn’t pick it up on my first read through, mostly because I was so engrossed in the story, but something was nagging at me about the style of the writing. It just wasn’t quite what I was used to and yet it wasn’t intruding into my enjoyment. After I finished I went back and re-read a few key parts and it hit me quite quickly why the style was a bit different. Then of course I wondered why the story was written in present tense but the answer to that became obvious. It’s a story about time travel. If Em had been narrating in past tense, about events she’d lived through already, it would make no sense for her to conceal certain points that she learns later in the book. By writing in present tense, we learn things as Em learns them and it makes the whole experience more authentic because the primary narrator isn’t deliberately hiding things but simply isn’t aware of them yet. Also, the ending of the story kind of makes it clear that past tense wouldn’t have worked but that’s another story and goes back into spoiler territory.
As to the characters themselves, they are highly engaging. They aren’t deep or intense, or complex, but they are engaging. The difference in tone between the two narrators (Em and Marina) is handled well and serves the plot well later in the story. Marina’s relationship, or non-relationship, with James is fairly well developed in terms of unrequited high school romance. This is contrasted nicely with Em’s dependent relationship with Finn, though as we learn more about how the two came to be together their relationship is probably the best developed sub-plot in the story.
The villain of the piece is reasonably interesting. Partly because you can see he definitely has developed a god complex in the future where Em is from and the power has definitely gone to his head, but mostly because you see him before all that happened and it’s kind of like watching Light in Death Note transition from high schooler bored with life to mass murdering psycho. Again, there isn’t a lot of depth to his motivation, but it works well, its consistent, and it is kind of relatable. Also, it provides just enough moral ambiguity that you have to wonder whether stopping him is actually the right thing to do or is there a way to let him develop time travel technology without him going power mad? I’d like to talk more about him but that definitely goes straight into spoiler territory so I’ll move on.
For a time travel story it doesn’t attempt to explain how time travel really is possible. The explanations you get are all very watered down and vague, which allows you to believe maybe it might work and doesn’t give you enough details to poke too many holes into the story. This is fine because neither of the narrators are scientists so it isn’t as though they’d really get the science anyway. Also, the way paradoxes are handles is pretty good. It’s a little convenient from a narrative point of view, but at least they address the issue of avoiding or creating a time paradox head on.
My main criticism of the book probably comes from the descriptions. Basically we get a couple of details about physical appearances or characters and settings and nothing more. It’s enough and at least we aren’t visiting info-dump land, but as the story progresses little more is added to the initial descriptions so visualising some of the scenes becomes more of an act of your own imagination rather than something crafted by the story. I don’t particularly mind that as I enjoy creating visuals but I also think this might make it hard for some readers to connect (then again, people who detest lengthy descriptions will probably be overjoyed).
The other criticism actually comes because of who the two narrators are and the parts of the story that remain undeveloped because it isn’t significant to either of those characters. There’s some compelling conspiracies and interesting politics playing out behind the scenes but we barely scrape the surface of these for the simple reason that our narrators don’t interact with these elements. They get hit by the effects of them, but they aren’t a part of that particular world. While that doesn’t stop the story working, it leaves me wondering if there was a more interesting story if we’d heard from a third character at some point.
Overall if you enjoy stories about dystopian futures but are sick of wandering around brown and ruined cities, All Our Yesterdays gives you a dystopian future where we spend most of the narration in the past trying to avoid that future. For a YA novel it makes some really excellent points, raises some good questions, delivers an interesting cast of characters, and tells a story that is compelling and feels like there is something really at stake. I really loved reading this book and honestly couldn’t have stopped reading it until I hit the last page even if I wanted to. I had to know if my guess was correct in how the story would end and was deeply satisfied when it was because the journey to get there had been rewarding.
Anyway, my recommendation is to read this. If you read Young Adult fiction or if you like low key science fiction, this is definitely going to hook you.
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