Today I’m reviewing The Clay Lion by Amalie Jahn, (2013, 251 pages) because it was among the top five most highly rated books on the Goodreads Best YA Time Travel list, and that oughta mean something, amirite? It’s considered a young adult novel, but appropriate for middle grade kids. This is book one in a series of three. The writing (at the sentence level) was not amazing, but the plot was killer.
Summary from Goodreads:
What if you could go back in time to save the person you love the most?
The rules are simple. If you want to travel back in time, you need to be at least eighteen years old. You can only travel within your own lifespan for a maximum of six months. And above all else, you must never, ever, change the past.
But that’s exactly what Brooke Wallace plans to do.
As Brooke faces existence without her beloved brother, his life cut short by a rare disease, she can think of only one solution – travel back in time to prevent his death. However, her attempts at fixing the past challenge her to confront everything she believes to be true about herself. And ultimately, she is forced to discover whether or not we can ever truly be in charge of our own destiny.
So, usually in time travel stories, it’s an eccentric professor or inventor who has discovered the secret of time travel. Only the scientist and their closest family and friends get to go toolin’ thru time. Or sometimes there are two groups, with one group being evil. The time travelers for good have to defeat the evildoers. This is the first time travel novel I’ve read in which every citizen has access to time travel, but the trips are controlled by a government bureaucracy, the United States Department of Traveling Service. When I was a social worker I logged a lot of hours in Social Security offices, and I believe Jahn captures the feeling of visiting such a sprawling government institution to petition for a service. There’s a lot of waiting, a lot of forms to be filled out, and ultimately one’s fate rests in the hands of the worker assigned to you. You just hope they enjoyed their lunch. I thought it was funny and fantastic the way Jahn had the time travel organized in this way.
In the world of The Clay Lion, everyone is allowed to take one time travel voyage into the past. Most people choose to revisit a happy moment. There are rules about not changing anything when you go back, so you don’t spin the world into chaos. (This kinda overlooks the well-known butterfly effect–the principle that if time travel were possible, even tiny changes in the past could cause huge changes in the present–but I’ll play along.) Main character Brooke is breaking the rules in order to go back in time to try to prevent the death of her teenage brother Branson who died a year prior. Branson died of a lung disease. A lot of the suspense in the plot comes from Brooke doing detective work to figure out which precursors may have led to the lung disease and then trying to prevent those precursors from occurring. Of course, messing with those events leads to some other unexpected horrible outcomes… Without revealing too much, I can say she is not successful at saving her brother on trip one, but she is able to finagle a second trip…
The author’s depiction of Brooke’s sadness over losing her brother is not a shallow treatment of grief. It was nuanced and deep, and might even be healing for a reader grieving someone. There are many poignant moments when Brooke goes back in time and gets to be reunited with her brother who had died. I think anyone who has lost someone can imagine how moving such a reunion would be. Of course, Branson doesn’t realize his sister is visiting from the future (because alternate timeline), so Brooke has to pretend everything is normal.
It’s great that although this is the first book in a series it was not cliffhanger-y at all, and it came to a satisfying conclusion. If I’m not mistaken, some of the same characters from The Clay Lion time travel into the past in the second and third books, Tin Men, and A Straw Man to try to undo a death of a family member.
Other notable time travel stories that involve a character traveling to the past to prevent something bad from happening to a family member include Time Traveling with a Hamster (my author interview), and The Power of Un(my review).