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Time travel, American style – ‘Paradox Bound’

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One of the challenges inherent to working in the realm of speculative fiction is finding new ways to explore standard genre tropes. After decades upon decades of sci-fi storytelling, it can be difficult to find interesting takes on ideas that appear to be more or less creatively exhausted.

While that difficulty does mean that a lot of newer science fiction feels a bit boilerplate, it also means that when an author finds a way to reinvigorate an idea, the end result is almost always as compelling as it is refreshing.

Peter Clines has shown a knack for that sort of conceptual innovation in the past, so it should come as no surprise that his latest novel “Paradox Bound” (Crown, $26) offers an engaging take on one of the hoariest of genre chestnuts – time travel. It’s a story of one young man’s unexpected journey into history and the centuries-spanning quest into which he inadvertently stumbles.

Eli Teague is a pretty average guy living in Sanders, a behind-the-times town in Maine. It’s the sort of place that doesn’t change a whole lot, but Eli’s fairly comfortable with that. He doesn’t feel any pressing need to get out of his hometown, even if it does seem to be lagging behind the rest of the world. Heck, the town’s got no cell service and it still has a video store.

But if Eli’s honest, his reluctance to leave is informed by some mysterious moments – unexplained years-apart encounters with a bizarrely-clad stranger. This traveler has appeared in Eli’s life twice before, clad in a greatcoat and wearing a tricorne hat, operating a tricked-out Model-A Ford and inexplicably vanishing almost immediately after appearing. He’s never quite been able to get that visitor out of his head.

When the visitor appears again, Eli is ready. He believes he’s prepared to deal with whatever explanation might come his way. He’s determined to get some answers. But this latest encounter with the enigmatic Harry proves to be far more than he ever could have bargained for. He’s swept up into the intrigue of a world beyond his capacity to understand.

Strange and powerful factions are at odds, pursuing one another back and forth across two hundred years of history. The stakes couldn’t be higher – the very foundational fabric of America is at risk. And Eli might just hold the key to saving the American dream.

“Paradox Bound” shakes the dust off the time travel trope and breathes some new life into it. The mechanics of Cline’s “history travel” are different enough to be interesting without ever becoming bogged down in complexities or semantics. He marries that dynamic to a shadow world that is engagingly detailed – including a brand of bad guy that is particularly memorable.

Clines marries his intriguing ideas with a breakneck narrative pace, driving the plot with a relentless energy that refuses to let up even in the story’s quieter moments. That pace pushes the tension, seizing the reader’s attention and never letting go, allowing the page numbers to simply disappear as time – both the time inherent to the tale and that experienced by the reader – becomes a fascinating blur.

Too often, stories like these tend to feature heroes who are little more than ciphers. While there’s certainly some value to allowing readers to project themselves onto a protagonist, the best speculative fiction creates characters that are as compelling as the ideas being presented. Clines has done plenty of that in the past – his 2015 novel “The Fold” springs to mind as an example – and “Paradox Bound” is no exception.

Flaws and foibles – that’s what this kind of tale needs from its heroes. Eli Teague sports the same sorts of imperfections that we all carry, the same questions and doubts that inform our experiences as people. And it is through these human quirks that Eli becomes far more relatable than any cookie-cutter character could ever be.

You might think that time travel stories are played. I wouldn’t blame you. Sometimes, it takes an author like Peter Clines and a book like “Paradox Bound” to remind us that there are still plenty of boxes to think outside. If you like your speculative fiction smart and sharp, with thoughtful ideas and plenty of humor to boot, you’d be well-served to hit the road with Eli, Harry and the rest.

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