Downtime by Tamara Allen – review

Rating: 8/10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ Title: Downtime
Author: Tamara Allen (originally as James Allen)
Genre: Time travelling mystery
URL: Dreamspinner Press [reissue – second edition]
Price: US $6.99

Other Information/warnings: graphic m/m, violence
Summary [from the publisher]:
FBI Agent Morgan Nash is on assignment in London when his case goes awry and he finds himself moments away from a bullet through the heart. But fate has other plans: Morgan gets knocked out pursuing a suspect… and wakes up in 1888.
While cataloging ancient manuscripts at the British Museum, Ezra Glacenbie accidentally pulls Morgan out of the twenty-first century—an impromptu vacation that may become permanent for Morgan if they can’t locate the spellbook Ezra used. Further hampering Morgan’s quest to get home is the irresistible temptation to investigate history’s most notorious serial killer: Jack the Ripper. But in repressive Victorian London, it’s the unexpected romance blossoming between Morgan and Ezra that becomes the most dangerous complication of all.

[PLEASE NOTE THIS REVIEW REFERS TO THE ORIGINAL TORQUERE EDITION OF THIS BOOK]

My review: Time travel stories hinge on the fish out of water theme, or the ‘what would happen if I shot my own grandfather?’ paradox. Downtime, a really rather charming romance, is mostly about the former, with a bit of the latter. This 300+ page novel was a delight in many ways. The Victorian details were handled very well, and deftly so one never felt it was a history lesson (only a couple of goofs revealed that the writer was not English.) The editing and format by Torquere was perfectly clean for a change, and the quality of writing was itself superior. And the actual plot was not terribly cliched, in a rather cliched genre, with warm and credible characters who linger in the mind long afterwards.

I have very few criticisms. The plot got somewhat tangled, with Morgan’s present day crime fighting confusing in detail, and resolved rather quickly – if it had been dispensed with entirely, it would have been no loss. The interweaving of the Jack the Ripper story with the characters’ lives was a tad strained and leads to some slow pacing, but on the whole worked well enough. And there were a couple of bum notes in the otherwise well-sustained Victorian era setting – in England, you can be the third duke of Marlborough but you can’t be Charles Bigname the Third (very American, that is) and Victorians didn’t actually go around saying ‘verily’. I also thought the acceptance of Morgan and Ezra’s relationship among Ezra’s circle was a tiny bit too easy, but not to the point of breaking the suspension of disbelief. The social consequences of being homosexual at that time are certainly not skirted over, but nor are they belaboured. I thought that side of it well handled indeed.

These really weren’t enough to tarnish my enjoyment of this story which I inhaled more or less in one sitting. Morgan is the least likeable of the characters, which is not to say he’s not likeable – but being a brash and rather pigheaded American, he sometimes made me want to slap him. But he’s just what Ezra and the others needed to shake up their confined existence, and he and Ezra make a lovely, believable couple. Some of his detective antics are a bit too Hollywood for true credibility but they’re used well and keep things rolling along nicely.

Ezra is a darling – psychic, queer, tortured, honourable, and trying so hard to fit in with a society and class completely unforgiving of someone so far outside social norm. I loved how Allen resisted taking the easy course between him and Morgan, and it’s a good way into the story before anyone makes a move, having to get past misunderstanding, prejudice and social restrictions before they can admit the attraction between them. It feels right to delay, and for there to be no easy path to their relationship either.

The minor characters are also attractive and well-drawn, from Derry, the Irishman (with a regrettably wandering dialect) to Hannah, the beaten-down maid who blossoms under Morgan’s modern approach to women and servants. The little household of bachelors, and the wider circle of men of ambiguous sexuality and class fascinated me, as did the set pieces in drawing rooms and opera houses. Real history and fiction are nicely woven together, to make a vivid and enjoyable setting for the romance.

The ending surprised me, though there are really only a few ways a story like this can finish, and I found myself thinking about Ezra and Morgan for days afterwards – always, to me, a sign of good writing. It’s not the most perfect novel I’ve ever read – time travel stories bring many pitfalls and I know of none that avoid them all – but I still thoroughly enjoyed Downtime, and would happily reread it. Recommended, and I’ll be looking out for more by this author. One to watch out for.

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