The Paradox Hotel, Rob Hart (Ballantine 978-1984820648, hardcover, 336pp, $28.00) February 2022.
A large building full of functionaries employed by a mysterious organization in charge of policing the timestream, and one rebellious individual, subject to ethical and emotional stresses, who threatens to either wreck or save or reform the whole shebang.
No, we’re not going to be talking today about the Disney+ series Loki. I just thought I would get a superficial synchronicity out of the way up front. My first-paragraph description fits both that Marvel superhero series and Rob Hart’s new book, The Paradox Hotel. But beyond a kind of steam-engine-time surface resemblance and kinship (time-travel and multiversal tales have been hot stuff for several years now), the two tales diverge significantly, as my synopsis should begin to indicate.
Sometime in the middle of the twenty-first century, time-travel to past eras has been perfected. Rather sensibly, for fear of destablizing canonical history-as-we-know-it, the only employment of this miracle is for rich people to go backwards as carefully monitored tourists. There exists a corps of operatives who make sure that no interference, accidental or deliberate, with past events occurs. Trivial breeches self-repair, for our single universal timestream is resilient and robust. (Right away, with this classical Poul Anderson/Fritz Leiber/Isaac Asimov/Kage Baker unitary timeflow, we get a big change from the current fascination with alternate timelines, as seen in Loki.)
One such operative under our lens proves to be a tough, smart-mouthed, alpha-female warrior type named January Cole. However, she’s been forced to retire from field operations due to going Unstuck. Yes, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, January is no longer firmly anchored in time. Her symptoms do not involve her physically popping from one era to another, but rather she experiences full-sensory flashbacks and flashforwards that obscure her “contemporary” reality. Luckily, for now, these symptoms can be abated by drugs.
So January has a new job: head of security at the Paradox Hotel, the enormous establishment where the time tourists congregate before leaping backwards. It’s a huge, complicated venue with all the famous demands and complications and duties found in any such lodging establishment, commingled with unique chrono-issues: such as when a tourist smuggles back dino eggs which hatch and unleash baby predators on the guests. (A long exciting battle with these reptilian intruders furnishes a good setpiece of action that spans several chapters.)
Now, somewhat astonishingly for a book predicated on time travel, all the action (save for a brief backstory incident that shows us January and her partner resident in WW II Germany frustrating an attempt to warn Hitler of his demise) occurs in the hotel—and is compressed into about only thirty-six or forty-eight hours. This tactic—along with its big cast of well-defined characters, minor and major—emulates such classic setups as 1932’s Grand Hotel and postmodern avatars like 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. When you factor in a dozen ongoing dangers and crises, the book also gains a feel of the famous disaster flicks of the 1970s, like Airport and The Towering Inferno.
Last but not least in the catalogue of action is the fact that four trillionaires are meeting at the hotel to conduct an auction to bring the whole time-travel enterprise into private hands, and that there is a ghostly murderer loose among them—someone who can wink interstially in and out of the timestream.
January’s task is to find the killer and protect the rich guys, while coping with her accelerating mental breakdown. And when the whole region around the hotel begins to go Unstuck as well, she certainly has her hands more than full.
One category of the frequent total-immersion hallucinations that January undergoes involves reliving various incidents with her dead girlfriend Mena. This motif is very effective in building up our sympathy for January’s character and condition, and ultimately proves essential in the resolution of all the various plot threads. January’s other visions—a dead man no one else can see; a hidden room engineered by the mysterious dead architect of the Paradox Hotel—actually contribute to an incidental affect resonant with those psychic detectives famed in horror and fantasy literature, such as those catalogued in Mike Ashley’s anthology, Fighters of Fear (review here).
With all these buzzing chainsaws aloft at any given moment, juggler Hart still manages to advance his detective-pursuing-a-master-criminal plot neatly and suspensefully and satisfyingly, moving from one new surprising clue to another, letting the reader assemble his or her own deductions in parallel with January. Oh, and did I mention yet that January’s assistant is a semi-sentient drone named Ruby, who is combination nursemaid, confidante, researcher and punching bag, feeling very wounded when verbally abused?
Ultimately, January Cole comes off as more than a smart-ass private eye bulling through her troubles that involve unique stefnal conceits. (While Hart does not delve deeply into all the paradoxes of time travel, his explanations and theories are sufficiently organic and logical.) Her philosophical questing and attempts to do the ethical thing and redeem her past misjudgments add sophistication to this tale of death and destruction down the timelanes.
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