(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)
When unemployed San Francisco reporter Chuck Townsend and his college-dropout son, Justin, take a cruise to Mexico in 2016, each hopes to rebuild a relationship after years of estrangement. But they find more than common ground aboard the ship. They meet a mysterious lecturer who touts the possibilities of time travel. Within days, Chuck and Justin find themselves in 1900, riding a train to Texas, intent on preventing a distant uncle from being hanged for a crime he did not commit. Their quick trip to Galveston, however, becomes long and complicated when they wrangle with business rivals and fall for two beautiful librarians on the eve of a hurricane that will destroy the city. Filled with humor, history, romance, and heartbreak, SEPTEMBER SKY follows two directionless souls on the adventure of a lifetime as they try to make peace with the past, find new purpose, and grapple with the knowledge of things to come.
[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook from the author in exchange for an honest review.]
One of the things that I’ve noticed about time travel novels is that oftentimes the protagonists will try to change history but will usually fail. But what if they succeeded after a fashion? John Heldt explores that far more interesting possibility in September Sky as a sort of side dish to the main course: the journey of Chuck and Justin in the past in a bid to find a purpose in their lives.
As with John Heldt’s Northwest Passage series, his new American Journey series has one thing that really stands out: its characters. He’s able to create fascinating and realistic characters that can be strong but are also very human because they have their weak moments. Chuck has problems reconnecting with the son he ignored because of his career while Justin has problems coping with his latest romantic debacle and the fact that he doesn’t even really know his dad. Both of them can be incredibly selfless like Justin in the last huge event in the book but both can be selfish because they fall in love and want to take the women they love back to the future when they leave, assuming that their time is far better. What will they do in the end? The answer may surprise you but when I look back on their actions, it completely fits in with how they developed and grew as characters throughout the novel. It’s a rather satisfying journey to see two directionless men find love and possibly even a purpose in life. Chuck and Justin as well as Charlotte and Emily all stick out to me as memorable characters. And even though the book focuses on the journey of the two men, Charlotte and Emily are both three dimensional characters with problems, motivations and strengths of their own; they’re not just there as romantic subplots.
Of all the things that surprised me in this book, I think the world-building was the most surprising. The Northwest Passage series had time travel in various locations, yes, but it was never really explained in all that much detail. Here in September Sky we actually meet someone who has harnessed the power of time travel and can go back to the past at will (with some important limitations, mind you). We get a sort of explanation of how it works which was actually quite satisfying even if it’s not exactly the most scientific ever; it’s based on science and is completely speculative. Still, it was actually fascinating and a main source of conflict for Justin and Chuck because they had to have their individual ‘keys’ back to the future or else they would be stuck in 1900 forever.
The plot was not very fast-paced in the beginning but the characters and the events were so interesting that it didn’t matter. As the novel goes on, however, the pacing just keeps increasing until you just can’t put the book down. And trust me when I say that John Heldt certainly hasn’t lost his capacity to surprise his readers. Just when you think you know how things are going to happen, he throws a wrench into the works and you’re left guessing until the very end of the novel. These plot twists don’t come out of nowhere, however. When you look back on how the characters develop and how their actions tend to drive the story it makes sense. It’s just hard to see the twists when you’re reading September Sky the first time around. And trust me when I say that this is a book you’ll want to read over and over and over again. It’s just that good.
Here in September Sky, you have everything that you can ask for in a time travel novel: a little bit of science and imagination, some romance, great characters and an unpredictable plot. You can’t ask for anything more! Even though the book has a satisfying conclusion, if you’re like me you’ll be left eager for the next installment in the series to see how John Heldt is going to get his other time travelers into the past. Will we meet our mysterious professor again? Or are there other people out there who know more about the past than they’re letting on? I can’t wait.
I give this book 5/5 stars.