Review: The Road to Alexander (Jennifer Macaire)

Two years ago author Jennifer Macaire kindly wrote a guest post A trip to Mantes la Jolie, July 11, 1792 where she described her trip into the past.

Jennifer Macaire's Road to Alexander book cover
Jennifer Macaire’s “Road to Alexander”

The tables have turned, and now I have the pleasure in reading her novel The Road to Alexander and writing my thoughts about it!

The Road to Alexander is the first in a series of 7 novels which constitute the Time for Alexander series by Jennifer Macaire (EPPIE finalist in historical fiction!).

I’m not usually one for history and can barely tell the difference between fact and fiction if it happened more than a few years ago.

The Road to Alexander disproves the first point, and gobbles me up for breakfast when it comes to the second…

Premise

You’re probably reading this review because you’re already familiar with the premise, but for the sake of completeness here it is:

Time journalist Ashley wins a prize and goes back in time to Mesopotamia in the year 333 BC to meet and interview Alexander the Great. Instead of being there for the allotted 20 hours, events conspire to keep her there indefinitely.

The Road to Alexander is written through Ashley’s eyes and is an account of her experiences there and then.

Time Travel Component

Primarily The Road to Alexander is historical fiction and author Jennifer Macaire has used time travel to take Ashley – and therefore us – with her back to 333 BC.

Conversations between Ashley and indigenous characters provide both a comparison and a melding between the past and the slightly future present (2089). We also get a good dose of time travel complete with mechanics, rules and a research university!

The time travel setup

I like the idea of the “Institute of Time Travel and Study” at the Tempus University, though the scientist in me screams at the secrecy it enshrouds itself in! They do the science, and for us it’s black box.

In this way it doesn’t sound much like a university to me but more like an internal business unit. Supporting this idea is the presence of a historical fashion expert who uses her knowledge to help time-journalists to fit seamlessly to the time and place they travel to. It was a nice touch that the one who helped Ashley wasn’t much good!

It’s a small point really, but for us as well as Ashley the secrecy means that the nuts and bolts of time travel aren’t given. We do get a lot of general and high level ideas though, and of course these need to be looked at (and admired! 😉 )

Time travel methodology

The mechanics of the time travel utilises quantum electron spin. Perhaps this is a play on HG Wells’ twisting of the time dimension in his The Time Machine. Maybe not – though Jennifer Macaire does work a lot of references to other time travel novels and movies into this novel! 🙂

The energy required is enormous – so much so that it represents an economic limitation. Somehow the energy drain is so enormous that on activation lightning strikes are predicted. The link is clear; the bolt of lightning supplying the 1.21 gigawatts required for Dr Emmett Brown’s DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future

A change in history

During transit the time traveler is held in a tractor beam which is essentially a strong magnetic field. Maybe this affects the electron spin or something, but there’s consistency with how changes in history (if any) are monitored – a history book is held in a magnetic beam at the centre of the magnetic pole so is impervious to changes in history. The Institute of Time Travel and Study compares the ‘normal’ history book with this preserved version to ensure that history hasn’t been rewritten.

Any detected changes in history are erased – including the time traveler. I’m not sure how the grandfather paradox would work here (if you change history and are erased then how can you change history?) – but I guess that’s the nature of a paradox!

(I should add here that I’d first noted down that when I read about the institute’s aversion to changes in time being made I immediately thought well how would they know? It wasn’t until much later in the novel that I found out. It gives me the impression that everything’s been thought out and spread out nicely in the novel, rather than being blurted out all at the beginning, or even going back and accounting for holes that had been dug. Kudos to Jennifer Macaire here!)

At one point in the novel Ashley suspects that she’s changed history and expects to dissolve, quoting the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. I must admit that again I was thinking of Back to the Future here!

“Molasses Theory of Time”

The underlying nature of time and time travel is the so-called “molasses theory of time” where time doesn’t flow like a river but like thick gloopy molasses with inertia. Changes to history therefore need stopping quickly otherwise they will carry on under their own inertia. This not only explains the limited applicability of the butterfly effect, but again shows how Jennifer Macaire has thought the time travel aspect through and integrated it well into The Road to Alexander.

It also explains the elastic nature of time which can compensate for new mass in the past for short periods; in the longer term it tries to readjust (in this case, causing Ashley waves of pain as her mind was pulled in one direction and her body was fighting to stay in another).

Writing style

Jennifer Macaire the painter

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” L. P. Hartley

“People didn’t burst into song because they had wrestled with a crocodile” Ashley describing her present (2089).

Jennifer Macaire introduces us to 333 BC Mesopotamia with grand eloquence! It should hardly be surprising since she spent a year researching the era – but don’t be misled; her historical knowledge hasn’t been crow-barred into every nook and cranny of this novel screaming “Hey look at me; I know stuff!” but rather used as a tool to paint a masterpiece!

I found some historical facts surprising, or even shocking. Is it true that honey and garlic were rubbed on wounds? One guy cut his teeth so that he could trim reeds for writing. Actually I’m not sure if these things are or could be true or if they refer to the fictional part of “historical fiction”. Anyone?

Jennifer Macaire the writer

“If I had cut myself then, cold mercury would have flowed from my veins.”

What writing!!!

Whether time flows as a river or as molasses, it does so with a grand elegance with turbulent vortices and more placid regions. And this is how Jennifer Macaire writes! To be honest here, I’m stumped. How can I describe colour in shades of black and white?

Things move forward in The Road to Alexander, but time is also taken for explanation. First person narrative illuminates 333 BC Mesopotamia with a mix of action as well as introspection. In this last case Ashley’s personal view on things and her knowledge adds an extra dimension.

Ashley

Ashley is really the testament to Jennifer Macaire’s writing – it’s her thoughts and takes on events which show us what is happening. So for me Ashley’s the main character here, not Alexander. I loved Ashley!

Nasar (her translator) describes her as “…a strange girl” but I don’t think this is the case. She’s intelligent; she thinks on her feet and can talk herself out of tricky situations easily. But she’s also practical. “I wiped my sweaty hands on my dress. I would panic later!”, “It was a sobering thought, so I drank some wine.” Brilliant!

She’s a no-nonsense kind of a girl and knows her limits, but she does have her internal struggles. Her upbringing in the modern day means that she finds it difficult to reconcile herself with Alexander’s cultural values such as slavery and sacrifices…but still ends up kissing pendants whilst facing the moon for good luck!

Alexander (or “Ijskander”)

I should comment on Alexander really, but I’ll be honest. I don’t want to. He’s described through Ashley’s eyes who’s in love with him and everything about him is sickenly perfect. I say this out of jealousy more than bad writing.

He’s charismatic, he’s good looking, he’s…blah blah blah. Go back in time and see for yourself.

(Or read this book!)

Humour

The Road to Alexander had me laughing out loud on the rail tracks to work – fellow commuters were looking at me wondering whether I was crazy! It’s not like I was going to give a train-wide announcement though – those are usually met with little enthusiasm (“You’re train is going to be late”; “This is a silent carriage so shut up.”).

Still, I’m going to chalk laughing out loud not as a sign of my madness but as brilliantly written humour! It’s always difficult to describe humour (even harder to write) as it’s so subjective. But from my viewpoint I loved it! 🙂

As an aside there’s a moment where Ashley’s referred to as “O Ashley of the sacred sandals”. Who’s with me on The Life of Bryan (Monty Python)?

Plot

I was really pleased that things start snappish; Ashley immediately finds Alexander and talks to him. There’s none of this dreadful arsing about trying to find him or gain access to him or “Oh la di da where is he I can’t find him he has no time for me” crap.

And yes, she falls in love with him pretty quickly – but The Road to Alexander isn’t a whiny “I’m in love with him so I’m not going back to my own time” thing. Phew!

I had the feeling that the plot line itself was a little vague. It was like reading a soap opera where there’s no clear story line – but there’s enough going on to keep me wanting to turn pages!

Perhaps adding to this feel was the way that the secondary and tertiary characters are written in with a background and history which puts their actions into context. It made for a very enjoyable and full reading experience!

Isaac Newton

Newton’s third law states that for every force there is an opposite and equal reaction.

Until now, everything is blindingly positive about The Road to Alexander so I’m going to balance it out with a couple of things I didn’t like. But I’ll pick a fight with Newton here, and say upfront that the “reactive negatives” are by far inferior and ‘less equal’ than the positives!

  • A baby is doomed to be sacrificed but is saved and adopted by Joseph of Nazareth. I found it a contrived reference to Jesus, though I’m ready to admit that this might be my own Christian sensitivities kicking in.

Then again, it was only one line, and indeed the text goes on (here, and in other places) about Alexander and his assumed divinity. (Come to think of it, and of Ashley’s as well!)

  • Alexander points out constellations to Ashley: “There’s the swan, and the great hunter, Orion, with his dog. Underneath is the lion, my sign.”

Astronomically speaking I don’t think this maps out right; I’m not sure if Cygnus the swan (a summer constellation) is visible at the same time as Orion (a winter constellation) – at least in the Netherlands, although it might be different in Greece which is further to the south? And where Canis Major (the dog) is indeed underneath (or nearby Orion), Leo the lion is found under Ursa Major (the Great Bear).

Still. It’s as corny as hell to show girls the stars to impress them (even I’ve had success with this), but I suppose if a girl is going to fall for the move you can get away with telling them anything! Good one Alexander, you “lion” you!

Rating * * * * *

The Road to Alexander by Jennifer Macaire is written superbly with a sense of humour and a main character I love! The setting comes to life with a fully researched – but not in-your-face – knowledge about the time and place, and secondary characters with a rich history.

My only negative is that I didn’t like reading about the sex because it was written from Ashley’s viewpoint; there’s more attention given to Alexanders body and not her own. It makes sense, but this part wasn’t for me.

But that aside…

  • Time travel – excellent!
  • Writing quality – excellent!
  • Humour – excellent!
  • Genre – Historical fiction for someone who doesn’t like history – yes I liked this!

5 stars! 🙂

What next? Stand by for an interview with author Jennifer Macaire…! 🙂

Paul

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1 Comment

  1. Another excellent and interesting review…I always look forward to your posts and enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy the books themselves (except for the negative ones)…Jim (Time Traveler) Batista

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