Monday, August 22, 2022

Microreview: Waking Romeo by Kathryn Barker

Juliet Capulet teams up with Heathcliff Ellis to bounce through time on a quest to revive her comatose husband in this award-winning YA sci-fi novel.

In my last review (of Mykaela Saunders' groundbreaking anthology This All Come Back Now) I mentioned that Lisa Fuller's short story "Don't Look" won two categories in this year's Aurealis Awards. It was not the only work to do so. Waking Romeo took out Best Science Fiction Novel and Best Young Adult Novel, suggesting it was worth a look. And it certainly was.

The year is 2083. It has been two years since the events of Romeo and Juliet. After their double suicide attempt, Romeo remains in a coma while Juliet survived with an impressive scar and a paralysed arm. She visits the hospital every day and writes her version of events while sitting by Romeo's bed.

But a comatose husband isn't Jules's only problem: the world is literally falling apart around her. 2023 saw the invention of time travel pods. These were flawed inventions that could only move forward in time. They were also unable to travel through space, which led to a grisly outcome for the occupant if they happened to materialise in the same space as an existing object. Despite these limitations, the world's population took to them in droves to avoid climate catastrophe and the general drudgery of life. So many people jumped forward in time that soon there wasn't enough people to sustain the current society and it began to collapse. No one stuck around to make the future better... so the Travellers kept jumping forward until they died.

Juliet belongs to the Settlement, a group of people who refuse to time travel... but they aren't exactly working towards a better future, either. They live off stock-piled food and clothing, toss their waste over the Wall, and even run the school like back in the old times. Juliet isn't exactly well-liked in the Settlement after the drama of her affair with Romeo and the resulting fallout. Nor is Jules interested in being liked, preferring to be a brooding loner marinating in her angst.

Then one day she meets a Traveller from the future.

Heathcliff Ellis (yes, that Heathcliff... more or less) was born in 1800 and is 18 years old. After being pushed off a cliff by an angry mob, he is rescued and is now living near the end of time with a group of other teenagers who call themselves the Deadenders. They have a superior form of time-travel that allow them to move freely through time and space. They carry out missions given to them by an AI called Frogs. Ellis's latest mission: wake Romeo.

As you might have gathered, the plot is absolutely bonkers. It's difficult to discuss without spoilers, thanks to all the twists, turns and time-travel shenanigans. Despite that, I didn't find it difficult to follow and I don't think it will be a problem for any science fiction fan.

The book is written using first person perspective, with chapters alternating between Jules and Ellis. These dual perspectives really help with the time travel elements of the book. There's a lot of jumping around through time, but the dual perspectives serve to drive the action forward so that the plot is always advancing. It also shows the way in which Jules and Ellis are often in different stages of their relationship with each other; whereas Jules may have barely met Ellis, he knows her quite well or vice versa. The contrast makes for some poignant moments.

The characters really made the story for me. Juliet isn't a sweet young girl in this story. Rather, Jules is angry and rebellious. She's constantly slouching around in hoodies, using the front pouch as a makeshift sling for her paralysed arm. She's a person of courage and action who is good at keeping things practical.

Ellis makes a good contrast. Although he's not exactly the most cheerful of people either in the beginning, he has some of the sweetness that Jules is missing. Time hasn't treated him well -- as he points out, there is never a good point in history to be Black -- but any resulting bitterness is a shallow thing more directed at himself than at others.

There are a lot of hefty themes within the book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's a lot of musing about our relationship to time and also love. It pushes back against instant love, maintaining that love -- and even friendship -- needs time to develop.

However, the book is also a lot about personal responsibility, of facing the difficult things and sticking around to fix them. It does an excellent job of showing this on both the big picture and the small, through the collapse of society and its commentary on climate catastrophe, as well as through life after Juliet's suicide attempt.

Another theme is about rewriting your own story. In order to cope with events, Juliet writes the version of her life that we all know and are familiar with. She loves Shakespeare and mimics his language and setting to distance herself from the events. But her memories bleed in around the edges, giving us a glimpse of a version less romantic (if you consider Romeo and Juliet romantic in the first place).

Ellis, meanwhile, shows the theme from an opposite perspective. He is haunted by Wuthering Heights, which isn't exactly the romanticised version of his life that Romeo and Juliet is for Jules. Rather, Emily Bronte shows the worst possible version of him, leaving Ellis feeling both betrayed and wracked with guilt.

This is a book that loves literature. In addition to playing with Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, it also riffs off Hamlet, especially in relation to Juliet's parents and their generation. From here, the second half of the book develops a theme of action vs inaction. To me, this felt a a little late to be flagging a theme, but it tied in nicely to its exploration of personal responsibility.

Lest you think it all highbrow with its references, the sharp eyed will catch a few nods to Taylor Swift and other more or less contemporary musicians.

As mentioned, it covers some dark content, though it does a good job of keeping the worst of it off the page. I would give content warnings for suicide, gun violence, racism and mob violence.

While I enjoyed the book immensely, it wasn't without its flaws. Readers hoping for an explanation of how time travel works will be disappointed; the focus is more on the characters and plot.

Ellis's ragtag Deadender friends were a charming motley, so I was disappointed there ultimately wasn't much done with them. They seemed largely around to make sure the plot moved forward.

But ultimately, this was a crazy rollercoaster of a story and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the satisfying development of themes, +1 for excellent use of time travel

Penalties: -1 for the underdevelopment of the Deadenders

Nerd Co-efficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz


Barker, Kathryn. Waking Romeo [Allen and Unwin, 2021]

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights [Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847]

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet

Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet