Ridgway's true strength in The River of No Return is her world-building. With seamless storytelling, she melds the past and present into a landscape that lends itself well to both romance and intrigue. Nick, the protagonist, is matched by Julia Percy, a twenty-two-year-old, nineteenth-century "spinster" who finds herself under the thumb of her cruel cousin after her beloved grandfather passes away. The novel's romance is fun, but it is consistently overshadowed by the mysteries of The Guild and their even more secretive enemy, the Ofan.
Time travel can be a tricky plot point to handle, but Ridgway navigates it with wit and self-deprecation, even referencing and poking fun at the usual time travel tropes, like killing Hitler. There are one or two moments of cliche but-that-carriage-doesn't-have-any-horses revelations when Nick first enters the modern-day world, but overall the tone is introspective, placing the past and present side-by-side without any unflattering comparisons.
Nick slammed the window shut and turned to grab at his clothes, flung across a chair. Fuck the rules, fuck this inertia. He couldn't not go down into his city, he couldn't not see what time had done to it. [...] He stared at the white buildings that stood on the old palace's gardens. They gleamed in the phosphorous glow of the streetlamps like the grin of a skull. This avenue of mausoleums wasn't living, breathing London anymore. The city had to be alive and changing and vital somewhere else. Nick glanced up at the moon, the thrust his hands into his pockets and turned left. Find the river, find the city. Ridgway's version of the past isn't rose-colored at all, but filled with violence, oppression, and bad smells — and the future isn't much better. The grimness of Nick and Julia's world gives gravity to what otherwise might have become a trite historical romance. Instead, they are constantly on the edge of catastrophe, and this tension turns the novel into a true page-turner.
I wholeheartedly recommend The River of No Return, though I have to say that the reader should be ready for a few excruciating cliffhangers — not least the ending, which practically begs a sequel. Five out of five stars.
Not convinced? Read reviews by Reading Rambo, The Terrible Desire and Books I Done Read.
Bee Ridgway teaches at Bryn Mawr College, The River of No Return is her first novel, and Bee Ridgway is not her real name.
The River of No Return © Bee Ridgeay and Dutton/Penguin Group, 2013. Hardcover, 452 pages.