Peter Clines’ 2017 fantasy novel Paradox Bound is a sweet, creamy double-scoop of time-travel, secret history, scavenger-hunt story and road trip, as Eli Teague, the protagonist, travels with Harriet Pritchard — she likes to go by Harry — across the continental US through various time periods, searching for something elusive: something unique to, and desperately needed by, the US if it is to continue as a nation.
Eli is eight and a half years old when he meets Harry. It is his first time meeting her, but her third time meeting him (although she doesn’t recognize him at first). Eli lives in Sanders, Maine, a town that feels mired in the 1980s. Eli longs to get out, do something with his life, but circumstances conspire, it seems, to keep him there, along with the class bully Zeke, who has a personal animosity towards Eli. When adult Eli meets Harry, he soon finds himself being interrogated by a man wearing a transparent plastic mask, like a Halloween mask, only there is no face behind it. Eli runs, intent on finding Harry and warning her about the risk of the Faceless Men.
Paradox Bound brims with interesting characters from US history and folklore, lots of great travelogue, and plenty of action. For the most part, Clines goes easy on the time travel paradoxes (none of the “searchers” as they call themselves, call it time travel. They are specific that they are traveling in “history,” a distinction I didn’t pay much attention to at first, but which figures to some extent into the plot.) The mechanism to travel through history was clever, as was the system of debts and “favors” the searchers use among themselves. In spite of the importance of the missing … thing, the searchers are not a team or an army. They are more like prospectors. The Faceless Men are an army, a murderous one whose mission now seems to be to eliminate all searchers.
Inevitably, Harry has to give Eli some backstory about what it is they are searching for, and how the founding fathers really forged the United States of America. This involves freemason magic and the summoning of an Egyptian god Ptah. Did you see that coming? I didn’t.
Eli crossed his arms. The Model A ate up another mile of highway with its tires before he spoke again. “So the whole American Revolution happened because of an Egyptian god?”
“Such a silly idea, I know,” said Harry. “It if was true, there’d be giant obelisks in the nation’s capital, pyramids on the currency, noticeable things like that.”
Eli opened his mouth to respond, then shut it.
That Model A, named Eleanor, is a large part of Paradox Bound’s story and so are several other distinctive cars and vehicles, including a train. The cars were one of the surprising pleasures of the story and include an Impala like the one in the WB show Supernatual (a reference Eli doesn’t get); an oxblood red 1940 Cadillac Sixty Special, and Eleanor herself, a modified Model A.
Another pleasure was Clines’s gift for pacing. Clines makes some big time jumps in the first two chapters and they don’t feel awkward, because he prepares us for the fact that this is about time travel. In many ways, despite the murderous Faceless Men, the book didn’t bring me a strong sense of urgency (which is a bit surprising, given what the searchers are pursuing). There are definitely moments of real jeopardy for Eli and a couple other characters in the story, but I missed a sense of truly high stakes, Still, the story glided along with a nice balance of action and travel to exposition. The forward movement is aided by the great descriptions and the colorful characters.
A blurb on the back compares Paradox Bound to the National Treasure movies, and I see that comparison. It’s got a bit of Doctor Who about it, and the Americana of it reminded me of the novel and TV adaptation of American Gods. By the end, there is a sense of renewed optimism, and it isn’t that the book is preachy; it’s just that along the way we got reminded of some of the things we love about the US.
Readers will enjoy Eli, who is convincingly bewildered and smart when he needs to be, and the scenes of the American road; they’ll like Eleanor and Harry. Paradox Bound is a tasty double-scoop of a story, with sprinkles.
Sanders is, in 8 year old Eli Teague’s opinion, the most boring town in the state of Maine, and probably in all of the United States. It doesn’t have internet, cell phone towers, cable TV or even a library (it does, however, have a video store). So when Eli sees a 1929 Model A coupe by the side of the road, and its young driver Harry takes Eli’s bottle of water and pours it into the fuel tank and takes off, hotly pursued by an odd man in a black Hudson Hornet auto with a large gun, it makes an indelible impression on Eli.
Eli meets Harry and her water-fueled Model A again when he’s 13 ― at which point he realizes Harry (short for Harriet) is a girl ― and again when he’s 29. Each time, Harry doesn’t appear to have aged appreciably. Harry mentions that she’s going to be at Quincy Market in Boston in a few days before she disappears from his life the third time. This time, though, Eli thinks he’d better find her in Boston and warn her that a (literally) faceless man is on her trail, the same man he saw pursuing her years earlier.
Complications arise, as anyone but Eli might have expected, and Eli and Harry soon find themselves as somewhat reluctant partners on a strange road trip that takes them back and forth across the U.S., and through different points in history. Harry is one of a loosely-allied group called “the Searchers” who are seeking the lost American Dream. The Dream is am immensely valuable physical item forged by the Egyptian god Ptah at the behest of the founding fathers. It mysteriously disappeared in the 1960s, and the searchers are digging through pockets of American history in a contest to find and control the American Dream, while trying to avoiding being killed by the faceless men, one-time protectors of the Dream who believe the searchers are endangering it.
Paradox Bound (2017) is a time travel romp (though Harry would correct you, insisting that it’s “history travel”) blended with an all-American road trip. It has a bit of a National Treasure vibe mixed with a whiff of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. Despite several tense moments and a little murder and torture on the side, Paradox Bound is a relatively lighthearted adventure. The faceless men are undoubtedly creepy and threatening, but also have a faintly cartoonish feel to them, perhaps because I never saw a compelling reason for them to be made eyeless and mouthless (how do they get nourishment, anyway?). I did appreciate Harry’s explanation that the faceless men are gifted with “certainty,” an innate ability to be absolutely certain of everything within about a three hundred yard radius of themselves.
This certainty, along with its ramifications, is a clever idea, one of many in Paradox Bound. The searchers learn to spot and use locations they call “slick spots” to slide from one point in time to another (“There’s a street in Dallas which only leads to November of 1963”). Folklore enthusiasts will enjoy meeting John Henry in the flesh; Star Trek fans will chuckle over his reference to transparent aluminum. A famous movie star that Eli meets once faked his death so that he could become a full-time Searcher. Apparently American history isn’t quite what we think it is.
There are weaknesses in Paradox Bound that keep it from reaching its fullest potential. The plot takes quite a while to fully develop, and occasionally got a little convoluted and meandering, wandering off into tangential byways. The characterization is on the thin side; I don’t think any of the main characters have made a permanent impression on me. I’ll remember this book more for its inventive plot and ideas. Not all of them worked for me, but enough did that I can envision rereading Paradox Bound and enjoying many things on the Second Iteration that I missed the First Time Around. (These are the names of two of the three pubs in a town called Hourglass, frequented by the Searchers.) Overall it was goodhearted fun, with some intriguing ideas on time and paradoxes, and an affectionate view of our country and its history.