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Rough Edges, but Fairly Solid (and Almost Educational)

By Tartra, author of The Other Kind of Roommate

May 6, 2017: Time & Tied is one of this site’s most enduring works, and one of its unsung heroes in how much passion has gone into it. It’s not without its problems – and unfortunately, they’re noticeable – but the core of it, at its heart, has such a gripping awareness of what it is and what story it’s trying to tell that it’s impossible to not be impressed.

Things I liked: this story’s been meticulously planned. Every detail has a pay-off somewhere down the road, and the organization of it blows past whatever you’d already expect from a plot hinging on time travel. This is a serial taking a lot of pride in its internal consistency, and you can see it almost fact-checking itself to stay at least a step of ahead of what could easily be plot holes (‘cause again: time travel).

That sort of commitment to its own logic builds a nice and rare trust between it and the reader. The cynical side of me stopped anxiously tracking every hook and half-expecting them to end up in nothing. Instead, I got to forget those hooks existed, completely confident they’d get their chance to shine and just enjoy the surprise when it happened (yes, I’m one of those readers).

The format of this thing? It’s fun as all hell. Time & Tied has its characters popping in and coming back from other years (and decades), suddenly wiser from their I-Already-Know-What-Happens, What-Does-This-Mean-For-Pre-Determination-of-Events time-cheating, and it lifts up two formats for you to sink your teeth into.

One is the standard read-it-as-it-comes method, when you just go through every chapter but have a bunch of plot puzzle pieces thrown at your head that only make sense when you’re further into it. This kicks off a series of fun “A-ha!” and “Ohhh!” moments as you finally see someone running off to do the thing you already saw them do three Parts (‘chapters’) ago and then vice-versa. It’s very satisfying, like a mystery novel you get to play along with; no character’s shy in telling you what they know, so you as the reader get all the same dots to connect at the time that they do.

Format Two is more of a Sweet-Baby-Jesus-What-Is-Happening-I-Love-It style. Characters are popping in and out, but through the series of links that Time & Tied has peppered throughout itself, you can actually go with them as they head off. Instead of wondering, “Oh man, where did she come from and what did she see that has her saying or pulling these shenanigans,” you’ll follow the unbroken chain of events – which ironically means this fantastic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style is the more ‘traditional’ way of reading.

I stuck to the first format for Book 1, generally using the second format and its links as mental bookmarks (i.e., “Oh, so this is the part that would’ve come after/before that! Okey-dokey”). Considering it’s Book 1 of 4 (and counting!), things were still gearing up to keep the stakes low enough that when a character reappeared, they didn’t necessarily know more or seem too different from when they left, which tells me that following them wasn’t such a wild ride that I had to drop everything and tag along. If I had, though, trust Time & Tied to drop you and me right back to when we started (eventually).

So even though I didn’t have that outright urgency to get into Format Two’s Insane-Section-Hopping, I’m still ecstatic to have that option. As the story goes on and the stakes do get to the highest level, so that following along actually gives a reader a wholly separate experience from Format One, this is going to be such a layered rush to go back and reread the changes between the two perspectives. Like I said, Book 1’s not there yet, but I am seriously impressed that this serial does not back down from the tricks it has over a paperback.

But on the other hand, there’s those rough edges I mentioned. What I didn’t like – and what I think takes away from the full reading experience – falls squarely on the shoulders of Time & Tied’s characterizations.

Book 1 follows three main characters. It has a crew of ‘big players’ throughout, but in terms of driving the early plot, it comes down to Carrie, Frank and Julie. All three of them are in high school. Frank’s a nerd, Carrie’s a cheerleader and Julie is super rich. The story starts with Carrie having the typical teenage priorities of ‘Gotta keep up my rep, popularity is important’ to the point of kicking off the plot by having her force herself to attend Julie’s party. A good part of Book 1 is about merging Carrie’s world with Frank’s, and ultimately screwing with Julie’s, which is even more attached to that ol’ High School Hierarchy she’s also at the top of (her and Carrie are besties). We’re watching these cracks form in and around the equally important plot of finding a time machine; as cool as that time machine is, the events it sets off is really about how these characters change their day-to-day social life.

On the surface, that concept sounds great. It’s even got a touch of YA, with its focus on these kids managing their life outside of school and cliques. In terms of how the serial lays it out, that concept is not what we get, mostly because none of these kids talk or act like a teenager.

The cheerleader, the nerd and the snooty Queen Bee use the exact same mix of unnecessarily formal vocabulary. I’m talking ‘hence’ casually – and frequently – sprinkled in, a lot of ‘thus’ following right behind ‘on the condition of’. That might make sense for Frank, who’s particular about his words, and maybe even for Julie, who could’ve gone to a fancy finishing school, but for Carrie and Clarke and Luci and Chartreuse – who the story makes clear all come from different social circles – there is no difference among them in how they speak and no reason why they all sound like they’ve been academically peer-reviewed.

That’s on top of the random, old-timey British-isms. As a Canadian, readings Canadian characters in a Canadian setting (Canada 150, woot, woot, represent), I know for a fact that the average 13 to 17-year-old does not talk like the Pevensies from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe; “Yes, do,” they exclaim, along with genuine outbursts of, “Oh! What a fright!”

At other times, the pendulum swings away from Stephen Fry narrating Little Big Planet and into the awkwardly young. Carrie, my main example of this, refers to her mom as ‘Mama’. Refers to – it’s not that she calls her mom that to her face, but that Carrie constantly announces to other people things like, “I need to find my mama” or “I have to talk to my mama”. Again, it’s not how I’ve ever experienced a white, multi-generational, Canadian teenage girl talking. Maybe a Southern Belle from Texas, which Carrie isn’t, and with how often the plot has her talking about her mom, I never got a reprieve from how out-of-place it always sounded.

That’s a going problem for the narrative: it sticks to how it sounds, so if a part of seems off, you’ll have to either grit your teeth and push through or stop reading – ‘cause you’re gonna keep seeing it, over and over and across every character.

(They also slap each other a lot. A lot. Again, mostly Carrie, which always feels very out-of-character. As someone who’s so bright and Charles Dickinson-y eloquent, the Suddenly Tsundere personality switches seem straight out of the left field.)

Regardless of how she talks, Carrie at least thinks like a teenager: she gets ahead of herself, feels overwhelmed from a lack of experience and oversupply of doubt and lets us see how she builds herself to take a risk. Some of the other kids don’t; they just feel unnaturally mature with no in-story explanation. Frank might get a little frazzled from time to time, dealing with Carrie’s impulsiveness, but he comes across so dedicated and competent as he spends night after night solving the intricacies of the time machine that he feels like a forty-year-old scientist. The problem’s not the competency, but that I’m not made to believe that a fifteen-year-old would so expertly develop and explain his theories, so patiently exposit to the reader and be so capable that I have no concern that he won’t figure everything out completely by himself. And he’s fifteen.

The same goes for Julie’s hyper-competency in tracking and controlling the people around her and how she just expresses her budding paranoia-slash-emotional-breakdown. As a cutthroat CEO to a Fortune 500 company, I completely buy it! As a sixteen-year-old? No. Also not for Luci’s and Clarke’s and Chartreuse’s unreasonable wisdom-beyond-their-years (well, in their respective areas of expertise. Friggin’ Luci’s like a grade nine CIA Operative, and while Chartreuse is an aura-reading, energy-sensing, pseudo-hippie, she’s a damn good one). It’s not to say people like that don’t exist, but the story never makes the case to say how so many exist in Time & Tied. It’s to the point that I’m pulled out of the story when anything reminds me of the age they’re supposed to be.

All of it could work if instead of setting it in high school, it was an advanced R&D corporation. Frank would be the nerdy science guy who’s still not the popular, Julie would a ruthless executive that just so happens to be friends with a clever, chipper and effective (if not a little shallow) manager named Carrie, who Julie thinks she has complete control over because they’re in the same department. In fact, that’s how I’ve had to have it playing in my head to smooth out those characterization inconsistencies – except for the slapping, which is a free trip to HR. Once I do, it’s smooth sailing to focus on the twists and turns of the plot again. The problem is the work I have to put in to do that.

Ultimately, I like this story, along with all the potential I see coming down the pipes in the form of those three other Books that are already out. But I’ve given it a three-and-a-half out of five because of how much those characterization issues jostled my reading experience. The payoff for pushing through it has been good motivation so far, but having to push through means I’ve found myself putting away the serial for a few weeks at a time.

Always to pick it up again, though. That’s the important part.

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