****I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review****
“September Sky” is a science fantasy novel about a father and son who are given a rare opportunity to travel back in time to experience 1900 as it unfolds around them, but they have to be sure to return to their time before a colossal hurricane destroys the city they visit. The story centers on Chuck, a reporter just let go from his job in San Francisco, and his son Justin, who drops out of college following a break-up. The two embark on a cruise where Chuck aims to find out why his son, who he has had a hands-off relationship with prior to his wife’s death a few years ago, would leave and hopes to convince him to go back to school. During this cruise, they attend a lecture on time travel and one thing leads to another and then BOOM! The two embark on a father / son adventure that has very little to do with time travel and much more to do with finding themselves and someone new to love along the way.
This is a time travel book, so why do I refer to it as a science fantasy rather than science fiction? For much the same reasons that Star Trek is science fiction and Star Wars is science fantasy. One is steeped much more in plausible science that actually leads to advances in science because it gets people thinking and inspired. The other uses a science setting and concepts but doesn’t use science to really explain the complicated concepts introduced. Both stories are wonderful, but don’t read this expecting more science, it’s just not there. Heldt’s explanation for time travel is simplistic (almost overly so) and is more mythical than scientific. Other than as a device used for Chuck and Justin to go back and meet their love interests, the time travel aspect of this book might as well not be there with how little it’s explored in terms of the “how” and how delicately they should proceed once they are in the past. Without time travel, this book would fit very well in the “historical fiction / romance” genre.
Because the book isn’t really about the time travel itself, it allows for a lot of “convenient” opportunities. Meeting the time travel professor, the professor deciding to send them back in time, is just some of the early, and obvious conveniences. When they arrive in Galveston, Texas, they seem to immediately meet everyone they need to for the rest of the book, their love interests, the man they are there to save, the murder victim and their killer (even though they don’t know it yet). Also, because of the lack of science fiction, Chuck comes off as overly reckless. He’s a father, bringing his son into a distant time that may turn into a one way trip, and he doesn’t seem to give it much of a second thought, this is an opportunity and that’s all that excites and matters to both Chuck and Justin.
From the onset, Chuck decides that he’s going to use this opportunity to go to the past and change his family’s history. He wants to save a long dead relative from being hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. This may trouble hardcore science fiction fans, or fans of Doctor Who, because the idea of changing the past and its outcomes on the future could be catastrophic. If people live who were supposed to die and suddenly have children they were never supposed to have… that could trigger a cataclysmic event. I mean, there’s at least 4 episodes I can think of in the newer Doctor Who alone that center on that very topic and the terrible consequences it has even if your intentions were noble.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but just know this is more a love story as the vast majority of the book is about both Chuck and Justin falling in love and then deciding what to do and tell these women when it comes time to go back to 2016 before the hurricane that is destined to wipe out most of the city. So if you are a fan of the romantic sub-genre of a science fantasy, then this is a charming read, a bit long, but cute with how Chuck and Justin become so enamored with the women of 1900. But Chuck and Justin are terrible time travelers, they go back wanting to change the past and any fan of Star Trek and Doctor Who-like time travel science fiction series will cringe at how willingly and constantly they defy the Prime Directive, so there’s that.
This is not a quick read, its length aside, there are certain times where the story takes longer to get through because the tension that would normally propel these kinds of stories forward is absent until about 70% through. The rest of the time, we’re meandering through Texas with Chuck and Justin and their leading ladies, making this more a cozy historical fiction then a high energy science fiction adventure. When they eventually tell people who they are, there’s very little surprise or outrage, most people come to terms with it really, really quickly and most other conflict in the book is resolved very neatly in order to focus once more on either Chuck or Justin’s relationship. The most tension and excitement we get is towards the end with the hurricane, so don’t expect a lot of action until then.
There’s a lot of “tell” through dialogue rather than “show” through action as well, making the dialogue feel a bit unnatural and the various characters sound the same as, on more than one occasion by many different people, someone will ask a question and then someone will say something like “That’s an excellent question. I’ll give you an answer…” and then gives the answer. Or someone will be asked to sit, they will respond with an “OK” and then sit. Those instances may seem small, and they would be, but they happen so often for every character that it slows down the narrative and makes the flow of the book a bit choppy and robotic because you aren’t seeing the characters move, they are always talking.
Ultimately, that’s what kept me from loving this story. It was hard to get into it when the dialogue and the conveniences kept me from really FEELING these characters. They seemed so similar that it was hard for me to get into their minds and fall in love or experience heartbreak alongside them. Heldt’s writing, and story, is best when he is writing a close third person perspective without dialogue. Where we can see how a character views and admires someone else’s actions, when we can see what those actions are rather than being told. There is far too little of that in my opinion so I sincerely hope that Heldt’s other books are different for he IS a good story teller. He does his research before bringing the reader into the world so what we’re seeing is as close to an accurate representation of 1900 Galveston Texas as we’re likely to get. Too few authors do that kind of research in the fiction genre thinking that just because these people and situations aren’t real, you don’t need to make them accurate. Heldt doesn’t do that, he respects the reader to do his own homework first, I just wish I could have gotten into these characters more.
Because of the sheer amount of convenient and overly lucky situations that make the plot weak, in addition to the dialogue that made so many of the characters feel too similar to one another, I couldn’t rate the book as highly as I wanted given the time and research Heldt did (which would have easily gotten him a 4 star rating alone). At the end of the day, that’s why I’m rating this on the lower side of 3.5 stars. The story lacked the tension it needed to make this not just a well-researched romantic romp through time, but an engaging and heart pounding one (which it could have been) as well.