Review of ‘The Group’ by Octavia D. Mason

The Group is the debut novel from American writer, poet and artist Octavia D. Mason, and introduces us to the world and life of Amiko Marquis, a young musician whose life is turned upside down by a series of startling revelations about the nature of the world, fate and reality, and some dark truths about her own past. While anybody who knows me knows that I will always have things to say about any inclusion of time travel in a novel, but other than one strange choice (discussed below) and a suggestion for another pass over by an editor to smooth out a few of the kinks in the pacing and phrasing, this was a thoroughly enjoyable story with a cool take on time travel, and a willingness to engage with some heavy themes that was quite refreshing.

It is interesting—if not devastating—how one altered moment can change a life.

All Amiko Marquis wants is to be left alone. But when a charming man named B.O. begins stalking her and begging her to meet his friends, her resolve to be left alone is tested.

After several no’s and one yes, Amiko finds herself in the basement of an abandoned cathedral meeting an eccentric group of time travelers.

Whisked away by B.O., Amiko time travels for the first time. But her night of wonder ends abruptly when a dangerous enemy of her newfound friends returns, prompting a race through time.

If she hopes to save her friends, Amiko must learn to trust in more than herself and embrace the chaotic world of time traveling

So I’ve got to get this out of the way at the start. Early on in the story, the villain leaves some clues to the heroes to tell them where in time to come and find him, and he’s chosen…inside Hitler’s bunker in 1944. Why? Why Nazis? There is absolutely no reason to include Nazis in this story, or frankly, any story that isn’t explicitly about how great it is to kill Nazis. The imagery of that regime is intrinsically traumatizing to a lot of people, and there ended up being absolutely no plot reason for it to be Nazis. They had to use some neat technology to make it so the non-white characters could be safely present but there are, sadly, many historical times and places where that would have been necessary, or even twist it around and go to a place where it was the white men who wouldn’t have belonged. Either way, while I never turn down a scene where Hitler gets punched in the face, that’s always secondary to just…not including him at all unless you have a very good reason.

That choice aside, I actually really liked the way the time travel was handled in this book. You can impact the timeline, which cascades forward, but without all of the overdone ‘return to the present and everything has changed!’ that gets done to death. There’s elements of whether or not fate exists, there’s elements of time being more elastic than static. There’s a few really cool conceits about how the group doing the traveling structures themselves, and how they’ve set themselves up to do the work. As with all time travel, no system is immune to ‘but wouldn’t that allow X?’ complaints and that was true here as well, but all the interesting and plot relevant ones got handled with aplomb so if you want to get all worked up over a consequence of this system of time travel that wasn’t addressed, maybe just…you know…enjoy the good book instead?

And outside the sci-fi elements, this was a really great story too. Amiko is a vibrant character with a lot of history. She’s been through a lot, and you can see it really impact her decisions. She struggles with giving B.O. any credence. He basically radiates an aura of trustworthiness and safety and she picked up on it right away but still couldn’t bring herself to actually take the leap, due to events in her past, without a lot of soul-searching. The relationships between the characters whose relationships predate the start of the book were all communicated very well in a very succinct way which is rare when you run into ‘person joins already established group’. There’s a temptation there to have a bunch of life story exposition dump conversations as the way to get Amiko up to speed with her new friends, and Mason instead manages to weave in the important bits here and there, in contexts where it made sense for them to come up. Amiko (and we) find out very plot critical information about characters FAR later than you would expect in this kind of story, but at exactly the moment when they would have come up naturally. It’s one of the strongest elements of the storytelling, to be honest.

There was a little bit of what felt like Deus Ex Machina solutions to problems, like the introduction of the disguise rings when the characters go to 1944, but it’s discussed that the characters we’re seeing in the present day aren’t the most far forward time gazers in the timeline. There are time gazers further in the future looking over the 2100s and potentially beyond, so instead of feeling like “oh how lucky they have the exact extremely technologically advanced mcguffin they need to move the story forward” you get “Ah, clearly this has been passed down the timeline from further ahead, that’s cool.” And yet again, in a hard sci-fi story with time travel tech, this would raise more questions that aren’t addressed, but yet again, adding those in would have added nothing to the story, so it’s good they weren’t.

I think that’s the real conclusion I have about The Group. It has time travel, which is an extremely standard ‘this is science fiction’ signpost to include. But it never felt like a time travel story about characters. It felt like a character development story that happened to use time travel as a means of allowing that development. This isn’t actually a story about the race through time in the blurb. The race through time is the method of bringing about Amiko’s apotheosis. She’s stuck, and unable to move forward as a person in her life, in her relationships with her friends and parents, and all of the time travel / timeline changing / have to do our job as time cops could have been absolutely anything that just put her so far outside her comfort zone and understanding, that she was forced to become unstuck.

Using time travel as a vehicle for that character progression allows Amiko to not only come literally face to face with the events of her past that were keeping her stuck, but through the process of seeing what you can become if you reach the point of refusing to accept the past, it gives her the chance for radical acceptance as the means of processing trauma, which was heartfelt, well executed and gut wrenching.

The Group didn’t go in the direction I was expecting from the blurb or the opening, but where it did go was emotional, genuine and impacting. There are some descriptions of r*pe and emotional abuse, but even in the ways in which they were at all explicit, they were handled with care, and I think, important to the story to depict how they were, instead of only referentially, but it might be hard going for those who have experience with those traumas. Altogether, with one more editorial pass aimed at tightening up a couple loose joints, and maybe an alternative to depicting Nazis, this would have been a great novel even coming from a veteran novelist. As a debut novel, it’s even more impressive. Great stuff.

Dan received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for a review.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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