Author: Lauren James
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 6 October 2016
Genre: contemporary, sci-fi, historical fiction, time travel (…it’s, er, complicated)
Series or standalone?: duology (#2)
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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The epic sequel to Lauren James’ enthralling début about love, destiny and time travel.
Sixteen years ago, after a scandal that rocked – and saved – the world, Kate Finchley and Matt Galloway vanished without a trace.
Stumbling upon their story, and wondering what it has to do with hers, in the present day, teenager Clove Sutcliffe is determined to find out what happened to them. But where do you start looking for a couple who seem to have been reincarnated at every key moment in history? Who were Kate and Matt? Why were they born again and again? And who is the mystery girl who keeps appearing at every turn in Clove’s investigation?
Lauren James’ The Last Beginning brings back much of what made her début novel The Next Together stand out: a multitude of timelines, a sci-fi twist on a star-crossed romance, and of course, more pieces of the puzzle in the story of Matthew Galloway and Katherine Finchley, who seem destined to be born again and again throughout history, changing the world – and losing each other – every time. Unique, funny, chaotic and full of adventure, The Last Beginning picks up with a new heroine. A passionate knitter and whiz-kid programmer, Clove is smart, impetuous, hot-headed and prone to making slightly disastrous and immature decisions, but her heart’s (usually) in the right place.
Clove longs to be the world’s first time traveller, and lucky for her, her scientist parents have been working on a time machine prototype at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. A startling revelation, however, turns Clove’s life upside down, and sees her tackling time travel rather sooner than even she expected. Throw in multiple mysteries to solve, fugitives to track down and a prominent LGBTQ+ romance, and Clove, while not my favourite character in the book, certainly has her hands full in this plot-packed but surprisingly fast read.
My favourite character, of course, was Tom. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen my over-the-top livetweeting but just in case, let me explain: Tom is Matthew’s hot ex-hacker brother. Sharp, dedicated, quick-witted, and essentially a total softie, for me he stole the show in the first book and does so even more here. He’s hotter and more noble than ever. Oh, and at one point he trades science for rebellion and a motorbike. The novel has a relatively small cast and not all are vividly drawn, but newcomers Jen and Ella are solid additions, while Clove’s exchanges with sassy, soap-opera-watching computer Spart are a strong source of humour in the book.
Like with The Next Together, the book features historical, contemporary and futuristic sequences, twined together in a dizzying array of twists and connections. New for this book is the use of alternate universes – timelines which have diverged completely from ones the reader has been introduced to – and the huge emphasis on sci-fi. There’s so much going on, in fact, that it’s a little too confusing. The Last Beginning is so focused on hitting the beats and going through the motions of plot that it forgets to let the story breathe. It doesn’t spend enough time on scenes that matter, which lessens any sense of emotional payoff. It occasionally feels like a mere guide for filling in the blanks of the first book, and even then there are plot holes and unrealistic reactions which weigh down the text. There’s a lot of tell over show and the need to get through scenes as quickly as possible sees many characters acting, well, out of character. They’re so caught up in time-travel and sci-fi that the reader doesn’t get to see them as they are, as they could be. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Clove, Tom and Jen before the reveal, or more of Clove after meeting Kate and Matt – so much happens between them, but the book almost reads like important moments have been left off the page.
There is plenty to like about the book, however, and while you’ll need to have read The Next Together to make sense of this one (you can read my very excited 4.5 star review here), the duology remains one of the most unique on the UKYA shelf. The return of visual, often entertaining epistolary additions like letters, emails, articles, extracts, doodles, transcripts and powerpoints is particularly brilliant. The complexities of time travel are more than just navigated, they’re embraced: this is a book which throws its arms around things like anomalies and paradoxes and says, look, if there’s one there may as well be a hundred. More than anything, Lauren James has displayed a tremendous talent for concept and a willingness to add an unexpected twist or three to a familiar premise. I can’t wait to see where she goes with her writing next.
Fans of Lauren James’ début will find a lot to like about this sequel: the return of much-loved characters, a multitude of timelines, a busy plot, great humour and a prominent romance make for a jam-packed semi-epistolary read. It’s not quite perfect and the narrative needed more space to breathe, but it’s an absolutely enjoyable time-travel page-turner.