Review by Linda Workman-Crider
After a series of bad decisions leads to desperate times, what difference can one more make? The answer is plenty.
Hope for a currently homeless Mitchell meant taking a chance on the past, not his past, but the past before he was even born. Drinking the liquid that was gifted to him by a complete stranger could lead to an exciting life traveling through time, or it could turn out to be suicide. What more could he really lose after losing his wife, his career, and his home? He had tried scrambling out of this pit for long enough to know that continuing the struggle wasn’t any guarantee of achieving even a poor man’s view of success. The only future Mitchell could foresee was survival for one more day, if he didn’t get beaten to death, for any number of stupid reasons people pick on a homeless guy, in the meantime.
We wouldn’t have a story, at least not this story, if Mitchell didn’t accept the amber vial of liquid. The only instructions he had been given were to take a sip and speak a year, any year before he was born. He awoke in another time, which answered the questions of would the liquid kill him and did it work. Now, he has to wonder who the stranger was that gave him the vial and why was he—Mitchell, a homeless man, a basic nobody anymore—chosen. In his search for these answers, he discovers that the vial is reusable, that other time-travelers, called Amser, can easily be spotted because they sparkle, and that, even in his new frame of existence, living until the next day is still not guaranteed.
The plot-line for Amber Gifts, on paper, has some major holes in it. What I find extremely refreshing, is that Kevin B. Henry acknowledges through this story that sometimes our past goals become meaninglessness as new reasons to continue (or enhance) our existence emerge. There doesn’t always need to be an epiphany within a character for the plot, or a sub-plot, to shift toward other goals. Just like real life, Mitchell gets caught up in his actions and reactions in dealing with his current situation and never notices that he has changed direction. He just grows past it being relevant anymore. So, I can tell you that as a reader you will be left with some unanswered questions by the time you finish this book. However, for me, the plot-line was a solid continuum of advancement in challenges met and conquered. Kevin B. Henry chose wisely the battles which Mitchell would actually face in this novel, and those he would not.
Mitchell becomes a round character very early. We meet him as a homeless man and very quickly he changes into the time-traveler we follow throughout the book. We see him form relationships and take on responsibilities that were no longer a part of the past-future him. The future-past him becomes a much more heroic character that we would expect in a novel, with reason to feel fear and to question his own next move, but brave enough to still face the challenges head on. I do not mean to say that Mitchell was predictable as a character. He was not. Though the first-person narrative from Mitchell’s perspective was a dead giveaway to his ultimate survival, the need to foretell the year of his next jump impeded any knowledge of the choices he would make next.
This is the section where I would normally discuss a second main character, but for this book the choice is too difficult to make. There is the person who gave Mitchell the vial, known only as “The Man.” There is Gil, the person who teaches Mitchell the very little he knows about time-traveling and who sent him on a mission to help Nicolas and Samantha. There is then, most obviously, Nicolas and Samantha whom Mitchell is helping. The antagonist would have to be the assassin who has been trying to kill Mitchell at almost every turn and then there is Crystin, the woman who is currently responsible for the Amser meeting room in 1918 Chicago and whom eventually becomes Mitchell’s romantic interest besides. Every single one of these characters is integral and irreplaceable within the plot-line and I can name only two as remaining static. Read the book and then tell me if you could choose just one. I am sincerely curious if it was just me.
Kevin B. Henry never keeps us in one time or place for very long. When Mitchell jumps to a year, he also jumps to location that is tied to that year (for instance, jumping to 1918 will always land a time-traveler in Chicago). I am neither a history buff nor a fashionista, so I would have believed just about anything had Henry written it well, which he did. For the sake of my own integrity as a reviewer, I wrote down three items at random to check for a match. Gibson Girl and Lady Lafayette vest were appropriate looks/fashions of the times they had been mentioned in, as was a reference to the Wickenburg Massacre mentioned later on. So, have no-fear, those of you in the know, you will find these details to be realistic.
I was primed from the beginning to enjoy this book because Henry opens with a quote from The Doctor. Though, I have not kept up with the low-budget television series since childhood, any references to Doctor Who stirs fond memories and an instant liking for the mentioner that is hard to shake. Leaving that bias aside, I would still highly recommend this book, that was 30 years in the making, with only a single caveat. Time-traveling is disorientating at first. Pay attention to the time and place as each new chapter begins and definitely read the quotes. I have been the type of reader who skips over these things in the past thinking of them as mere frills and decoration. In this book, that is not the case. Kevin B. Henry has taken ultimate care in presenting the characters, this story, and his amazing talent as writer in the best possible light and it shows. If you’re a Sci-Fi fan, this is not just highly recommended, this is a must-read.