This is the way my story begins. Not with a bang but a whimper. Nothing more than a calm voice, a careful smile, and a pair of spectacles perched on the tip of a thin nose.
After a series of very precise visions that seem to take Alex Wayfare back into the past leaves her a social pariah in high school, she is sent by her parents to consult a psychiatrist. When her talks with that psychiatrist get back to a strange old man named Porter, though, Alex finds herself pulled into the world of Descenders and Transcenders, a world where reincarnation and access to Limbo allow her to travel back through her past lives. Soon realising that she is being pursued by a powerful man with the same abilities as her own, Alex must learn not only how to use her powers but also the truth about her own past lives...
Although I have read a number of YA books over the years, mainly the more popular and well known like The Hunger Games or more recently the fantastic Red Rising, I can't say that I am much of an expert on the form. So it is rare that this type of novel comes across my radar in a way that encourages me to pick up a book and read it. When I saw the blurb for The 57 Lives of... though, I was immediately hooked on the description of time travel through reincarnation and the possibilities offered by the concept of travel through past lives. And I am really glad that I was, because the story of Alex Wayfare is great!
After discovering that she is the latest reincarnation of a Transcender - able to travel back through her own past lives while remembering who she is - Alex Wayfare begins to work with her mentor, Porter, in order to thwart the evil machinations of Durham Gesh. So far so cliche, but where The 57 Lives of... excels is in the descriptions of the past as Alex travels back to Prohibition Chicago, the 1960s and the Wild West. Each version of Alex is very different and the way that Ms. Buerhlen allows some of these different incarnations to filter through to Alex both while she is inhabiting their bodies and once she is back in her "Base Life", was very clever indeed. It was nice to see Alex geek out in each different time period, and watch as she compares them either favorably or unfavorably to her Base Life.
Base Life is complex for Alex - she has a loving family, but the fact that her older sister is suffering from cancer puts a lot of tension into all of her relationships. Buerhlen does a great job of keeping all this realistic and gives us a nice glimpse into how the way she lives her life changes as she is able to apply her experiences to her 'mundane' problems. Her friendship with Jensen is an especially nice touch as she is forced to reevalute what she thinks about the 'popular' boy who may be a more interesting person than she expected.
Throughout, though, the keystone to Alex' voyages is her relationship with 'Blue', a boy who may be her actual soulmate. That is another soul who follows her through time, dying and being reincarnated along with her. Blue's appearances in each of the time periods she visits forms a central part of the mystery Alex is facing and the way that this is - partly - resolved works well.
Buerhlen also deals nicely with some of the trickier aspects of time travel - the dreaded paradox. Right from the first page, we know that the concept of alternate timelines is going to be dealt with, but the way this is resolved by the end was a nice twist to the idea from my point of view. Not hugely original, but enough so that I liked it.
Alex Wayfare's adventures end on a nice cliffhanger, with enough of the mysteries and relationships resolved while leaving the overall arc far from ended. Though not breaking any major new ground, this YA SF novel played around with some great ideas and takes the reader to some of my favourite time periods. I can't wait to see what else Buerhlen has in store and what other time periods we will be taken to (considering that according to Porter, Alex' previous lives stretch back to 5 centuries BC!). I gave The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare 4 glowing soulmarks out of 5.
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