World-building is one of the trickiest parts of writing fantasy and science fiction. Books are often front-loaded with detail, and sometimes this detail is essential for understanding later plot developments. But sometimes it's just there because the writer was so enamored of her own creativity that she wasn't a good judge of which elements were ornamental rather than strictly necessary. It's no wonder some readers find navigating a fantasy world off-putting or not worth the trouble.
Bee Ridgway, in The River of No Return, walks a fine line between these two extremes but in the end succeeds nicely. The book, a literary time-travel feminist romance mashup, throws a lot of detail at you right out of the gate, and I found myself, in the first 50 pages or so, thinking, "Do I have to remember all this?" (Kind of the reader's version of "Is this going to be on the test?") The answer is yes, but it's worth it.
Ridgway's details are all crucial to understanding what happens to Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, when, just as he is about to die in the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, he jumps forward in time to 2003. There, with the help of a mysterious organization called the Guild, he lives for the next 10 years as Nick Davenant, a hipster organic farmer in Vermont. It turns out Nick has a special ability that enables him to swim around in the river of time (while the rest of us idiots are just carried along in the current). This skill qualifies him for admission to the Guild, a super-secret club for time travelers.
Threaded throughout Nick's story is that of another time traveler from Regency England: Julia Percy, ward of the recently deceased fifth Earl of Darchester. Julia's powers exceed those of all but the most practiced Guild members. Not only can she swim around in the river, she can stop it from flowing altogether. But in the beginning of the story Julia is untrained; she uses her nascent skills mostly to fend off the unwelcome attentions of her new guardian, the Earl's foul and abusive nephew.
Julia and Nick meet when he is drafted by the Guild for an undercover operation wherein he must return to his old life as the Marquess to discover who is threatening the Guild's sovereignty. Romance ensues but with a twist: Nick is now a 21st-century guy who finds the societal strictures on women to be degrading and counterproductive. When proto-feminist Nick meets superpowerful Julia, sparks fly. I loved it. Ridgway includes all sorts of wink-and-nod references to traditional Regency romance tropes while turning the whole genre on its head.
Ridgway has recently released a prequel to The River of No Return, available as an e-book from Penguin and Amazon. It's called The Time Tutor and is only 90 pages and costs $2.99. I'm definitely going to read it. I'm not surprised to find this -- it was clear from the ending of The River of No Return that Ridgway was setting us up for a lot more to come. Which takes us back to the world-building discussion. After all, if you go to the trouble to construct a world where the rules about time are all different, it seems wasteful not to keep using it.