The 57 Lives Of Alex Wayfare, by MG Buerhlen

Alex Wayfare


Series: Alex Wayfare #1 | Publisher: Strange Chemistry | Published: March 4th 2014 | This edition: eARC | Where I got it: NetGalley | My rating: 5/5

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.

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.

Where to begin explaining what I enjoyed about this book? Good grief, give me a minute. And another cup of tea…

Okay. The first (and certainly, hopefully not the last!) Alex Wayfare novel is one of those wonderful stories that captured me from the very start, and refused to let go even after I’d finished and had to put it down. Not only am I fond of time travel stories in their various and often wildly outlandish forms, but as I’m discovering more and more lately, I’m also not entirely averse to a good YA novel where the characters and/or plots don’t make me want to start sobbing and set fire to the book for the good of humanity and intelligent teenagers everywhere. And more than even those things, I confess quite happily that I will always be in love with a good period piece, provided that the period in question is the 1920s/Prohibition era. Set it in New York or, as in this case, Chicago, and I am an utterly happy clam.

Well done, Ms. Buerhlen.

Now, this is a time travel (sort of) story, so naturally the story isn’t confined to that era. It bounces back and forth from then to now, with a few pit stops elsewhere/when along the way. It’s entirely to the writer’s credit that this structure never loses its footing or gets confusing for the reader, which I feel is a large, though likely natural, potential hurdle to fall down at. In fact, the story’s pacing is impressively assured and steady throughout. The problem there was more that I couldn’t turn pages fast enough!

You can thank the characters for that, as much as the excellent story. As the narrator of her own tale, Alex Wayfare’s voice is a compelling one, and her story drew me right in from the outset. At seventeen years old and with a gift she can barely even understand, much less control, of course it’s had a pretty hard impact on her. Many teenagers are socially awkward and uncertain of themselves without such problems, after all. Now add in the fact that her family also has a difficult time understanding her… The near-miss with the conclusion that Alex is mentally unstable is perfectly logical, and is handled remarkably well here. Alex got nothing but sympathy out of me for her troubles, notably because I’ve been that painfully awkward, sometimes bitter-about-it teenager myself. The pranks she plays in her more resentful moments may not solve anything, but you can understand why she goes there, and her rebellious streak plays perfectly into the trouble she causes later on, as she meets a fellow Descender (‘Porter’) and starts to learn how to make use of what she can do…

And here’s where we get to the most geeky of my reasons to like this book. Alex’s experiences in her 1920s-Chicago past life were a joy to read, and not only because of my love of that period. Her encounter (and romantic involvement) with the boy she calls Blue is a perfect example of what I like to see in such stories, or subplots, as this one. There’s no overly dramatic swooning or cheesy lines to make me roll my eyes and spoil the mood or the moment. It’s just an incredibly well-realised, beautifully written love story, and one that I don’t admitting is compelling enough to ensure I’ll come back for book two, with or without everything else that’s awesome about it.

Clever plot, check. Lovable characters, check. Hissable villains, definitely check – and on a related note, gripping plot twist? Absolutely present and accounted for. Another respectful nod must also go to Buerhlen’s worldbuilding. This is a YA romance, but it’s also kind of a sci-fi story, and so one must expect her science to stand up to the standard of the rest of it. Does it ever. Never overly complicated, but still undeniably intriguing. Just like the story itself. Lean, clever, and quite simply marvellous fun to read. Like I said – well done. 

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