For as long as 17-year-old Alex Wayfare can remember, she has had visions of the past. Visions that make her feel like she’s really on a ship bound for America, living in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or riding the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair.I have mixed feelings about this one. The very start immediately got me interested with Alex playing a prank on one of her teachers. But she does whinge a lot, especially at the start, about how she has these weird flashbacks (which, to the reader, are obviously the point of the story) and thus it's better if she has no friends. I mean, I liked Alex overall, but there were times when she thought she was doing something special (by making herself an outcast) when really she was just being a teenager.
But these brushes with history pull her from her daily life without warning, sometimes leaving her with strange lasting effects and wounds she can’t explain. Trying to excuse away the aftereffects has booked her more time in the principal’s office than in any of her classes and a permanent place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Alex is desperate to find out what her visions mean and get rid of them.
It isn’t until she meets Porter, a stranger who knows more than should be possible about her, that she learns the truth: Her visions aren’t really visions. Alex is a Descender – capable of traveling back in time by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. Alex is one soul with fifty-six past lives, fifty-six histories.
Fifty-six lifetimes to explore: the prospect is irresistible to Alex, especially when the same mysterious boy with soulful blue eyes keeps showing up in each of them. But the more she descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want Alex to travel again. Ever.
And will stop at nothing to make this life her last.
Then she meets Porter, who plays the role of adult mentor. Of course, he drags out his explanation of WTF has been going on as long as possible and manipulates her into working for him without fully understanding what she's actually doing. It's not all bad, but he is definitely on the morally ambiguous side of things. The revelations we get towards the end are partly not that surprising, once the climax begins, and partly satisfying. A mixed bag. Oh, I will add that I found some of the earlier "here is what's going on" explanations from Porter a little too info-dumpy for my liking.
Really, I found the first half of the book a little slow. I didn't quite share Alex's connection with 1920s Chicago, and it took a while before we learnt what and why was happening. And then once it was explained, the worldbuilding — or more specifically, the way Alex's (and others') abilities worked. Nothing major, but a few little "hang on, what about..." moments which I won't go into detail on because spoilers. They were ultimately minor enough to be overlooked, though.
I quite liked Jensen, Alex's only, albeit not straightforward, friend in the present. Her family were also all great characters. The only disappointment was that other than her family (which included her parents, two grandparents and two sisters), there were no female characters that she was on good terms with. All the non-familial "nice" characters were male. And at one point, she even says (out loud, to Jensen) that all other girls are vapid. Which is so not cool.
I'm not sure whether I'll read the sequel, The Untimely Deaths of Alex Wayfare. For much of the book I was thinking probably not, but then the climax piqued my interest and there were sufficient threads left hanging to keep me interested. And there are reveals left to come that I want to know if I've guessed correctly about. So I'll probably decide when it comes out. For now, I'm pencilling it in as a maybe.
I recommend The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare to YA fans looking for something a bit different. It's not perfect, and it has slow bits, but it wasn't bad. I think other people will enjoy some aspects, like the worldbuilding, more than I did.
3.5 / 5 stars
First published: March 2014, Strange Chemistry
Series: Yes. Book 1 of (I think) 2, Alex Wayfare series
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley