When Lew tapped into the enigmatic power used for Working, he hoped to find his foster sister. Instead, he gets sent back nearly 100 years into the past. Luck is on his side, however, when he not only manages to slip into the life of a very recently deceased man, but strikes up a friendship with a fellow Worker. By combining their efforts and comparing what little they understand about Working, Lew and his friend Archie manage to find Lew’s sister.
The joy of the siblings’ reunion, however, is quickly tainted when Archie turns up dead. Suddenly, Lew is wondering what else their Working has brought into the past. Having Detective Inspector Carter hot on his heels doesn’t do Lew any favors, either. The man is as attractive as he is ignorant of Working and Workers—that is, completely. Yet as the bodies continue to fall, Carter is increasingly convinced of Lew’s possibly criminal involvement with the rash of murders.
It’s up to Lew to figure out a way to battle an enemy he’s never seen with a power he’s not adept at controlling. Hopefully, he won’t also have to count Carter amongst his enemies.
Just so we are abundantly clear, this is a paranormal book that has a prologue set in the present (well, 2016) and spends the rest of the 20-odd chapters mostly in 1920 and 1921. Paranormality is most definitely a starring trope—it is what is responsible for sending our main character Lew into the past and what draws a small cast of side characters together to battle a very paranormal enemy. For the most part, this concept was pretty well communicated by referring to the people who can DO paranormal things as Workers and when they use paranormal energy, it’s called Pulling. The capitalization kind of helps even as it annoys my inner copy editor.
Despite having such a concrete concept about the paranormal, none of the characters who are capable of doing the Pulling know much of anything about it. Even the de facto expert got cold feet when he discovered people died inexplicably while Pulling, so most of the information he’s able to provide comes with the huge caveat that A) his information is decades old and B) he quit Pulling long before he became proficient. How lucky, then, for our MCs that this particular character is able to provide just the right information just when its needed. In a nutshell, these Workers know they have to keep the Border between the world of humans and the world of not humans in good repair, which requires Pulling energy. They seem to know that it’s dangerous and that the non-humans can/do kill Workers, but that’s about as far as things get developed/explained in this book.
There is a lot to unpack about the prose itself, too. In the plus column, Lester makes a good faith effort to incorporate period-accurate language. This helps transport the reader from the 21st century to the early 20th century and helps us feel how divorced Lew is initially from the period. Of particular interest was the way Lew realizes that despite being a Londoner himself, people of the same city 100 years in the past speak with different accents. In the minus column, this attempt at linguistic authenticity also extends prevalently into the non-dialogue prose. More than a few times, I was pulled up short by the choices used in the narration; for example: “lamp” as a verb to mean “punch,” and “foxed” to mean “exhausted” instead of “drunk,” and “pathologist” to mean “medical examiner.” Another minus for me was Lester’s oddly anthropomorphic descriptions: a plate [of toast] appeared, accusatorially, on the table in front of him (how can a plate of toast have an accusatory look to it?!)); a couple of postcards sending cheerfully casual greetings (perhaps a professional hazard, but the POSTCARD isn’t greeting the recipient, the person who WROTE the post card is).
Apart from the prose, we have the characters. Given how the story is split about 70/30 Lew-centric and Carter-centric threads respectively, it’s a bit depressing that I have no idea how to describe Lew. Carter fares a lot better. We learn he’s got some serious anger management issues that are exacerbated by his attraction to Lew and the fact that in 1920s England, being gay is an imprisonable offense. He makes some bad choices in how he handles his attraction (“lamping” Lew, for instance), but it was clear how his personality (sort of a “tender asshole” in that Carter is shown to be devoted to those he choses to have in his life and an asshole when he’s emotionally confused) and the plot drive him to behave how he behaves. For Lew, it’s a lot less clear. We’re near the end before we start seeing Lew have any emotional interaction with another character (to be fair, we see Lew get broken up over Archie’s death…but that’s hard to categorize as an “interaction”) and I found his portrayal to fall squarely in the “damsel in distress” category—which was a big let down for a man who’s portrayed as charging into the unknown to find his sister and gamely grasps at straws to make do.
Overall, I found the main tenants of the plot weakly defined and the characters sort of floating from nebulous plot device to nebulous plot device. The story lacks a strong cohesive theme and that’s amplified by a cast of ill-defined characters. On top of this, this first book lacks any real ending that ties up any of the loose ends—from what Lew and his sister are going to do about being in the past, to how to handle the non-human creature Lew inadvertently brought over when he went back in time, to the sexual tension (that gratuitously gets ramped up to 11 mere pages before the end of the book).
I wouldn’t recommend this book as a standalone read and, frankly, neither the characters nor their plight really inspire me to follow up with future installments.