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February 5, 2016 by kitmoss
While arcane magic was the means for time travel in Tamara Allen’s DOWNTIME, science is most definitely the tool used in this novel. Historical preservationist Susan Lennox and her teacher brother Neil find what amounts to a copper Faraday cage in a room in an old dilapidated house in the Bowery that greedy developer Joe McGowan wants to tear down to build condos. When Professor Robin Winfield pops in from 1889 during a thunderstorm they have more than preservation on their minds when they must fight to keep the portal open so he can return.
When Susan and Joe take the time train back to more or less Robin’s time they go to Joe’s great-great-grandfather for help, which proves to be a mistake. The villainous elder McGowan has Susan committed to an infamous insane asylum. In the meantime Neil and Robin take passage in the same time transport attempting to rescue Susan from being trapped in a place and time that has obsessed her all her life, an inheritance from her historian father. As they say in the stories, various and chilling high jinks ensue.
It’s no secret I am nuts about Allen’s books. In particular I like how thoroughly she researches important elements behind her stories. The depth of her understanding of banking demonstrated in THE ONLY GOLD, for instance, is staggering. In BLUE SKIES the topic is the historical buildings of Manhattan, depicted lovingly and appropriately. Allen also subtly injects some of the not-so-nostalgic aspects of the past, the nearly powerless role of women, the criminality of homosexuality, and the savage “advances” in the treatment of mental illness. I love historical fiction that keeps you rooted in the human relationships but also leaves you with new understanding of the totality of the past.
As for the writing, it is, after a rather weak introduction of the fact of time travel, Allen’s usual smooth, insightful and compelling storytelling. Her characterizations go far beyond the convenient traits of everyday people to explore the complexities of relationships and the joy and pain they cause and the results in how we learn to trust and love.
A commonplace of time travel stories is the existence of what you could call a “prime directive”, that you must not change the past or you may disrupt the present, even cause the logical contradiction of your own birth and life. Allen walks the narrow path of having her characters trip on the prohibition but shows how the changes made as a result of breaking the rules can still end up favorably. Shades of a Star Trek episode, fitting for a concept of prime directive they also averred.
One odd thing about this book is the description on Amazon. From it you would have no idea that both Nil and Robin are gay and slated to attraction to each other. The existence of this review on this site should clue readers in to the substantial weight this subplot carries. But Susan’s conflicted feelings for Joe are every bit as important. Might this book be a “Missing Link”?