Every once in a while, I dip my toes into a science-fiction thriller, like I did with Constance. The Paradox Hotel is another such blend of mystery, science fiction, and tension, but this time instead of human cloning, we get time travel! The question at the heart of Rob Hart’s story is actually asked by an artificially intelligent drone: why do humans deal with pain by lashing out at others?
January Cole is the head of security for a hotel next to the world’s only functional timeport. The U.S. government has, of course, turned this into a tourist business catering to those rich enough to travel through time. Nevertheless, the business isn’t profitable, so it is being privatized. January is preparing for an auction that will see some of the richest people in the world arrive to bid for the timeport—and the attached hotel—but as she does this, other events threaten the security of the auction, the hotel, and January’s job. See, January is Unstuck—her years of serving as a Temporal Enforcement Agent have left her with the ability (or disability) to experience moments from her past or future as if they are the present. You would think this would be a cool power, but it’s slowly killing her, and if anyone learns how much her condition has progressed, she would be removed from her position faster than you can say “Einstein–Rosen bridge.”
January in many ways embodies the typical, sardonic hero we tend to see in these kinds of thrillers. She carries a heavy burden of grief—in this case, a lost love—and guilt—not being able to save said love. She’s dealing with a chronic illness—or not dealing, depending on whom you talk to. She’s gruff and no-nonsense but always willing to crack a joke if it will deflect from anything getting too real. We learn precious little about January’s past or her interests outside of doing her current job.
Nevertheless, Hart somehow helps us connect to January and relate to her struggles. I think it’s because, deep down, she really does care about this hotel and what happens to the people in it. We see this in her (strained) relationships with other employees, such as her boss, Allyn; the hotel manager, Rob; or the non-binary head concierge, Cameo. January bridles when people with power mistreat those who lack it, and she refuses to step down when she thinks she is in the right. These qualities help establish her as a sympathetic protagonist even when she isn’t always being a likable one.
For a novel about time travel and paradoxes, the actual time travel shenanigans here are fairly light. Indeed, aside from January’s premonition-like ability, you could get through the first two thirds of this novel before getting any kind of headache from time travel. It’s only during the climax, after January unravels how her unseen enemy has been manipulating events, that the time travel angle truly comes into focus and threatens to bemuse rather than amuse.
Indeed, if you were hoping for more than only a surface-level explanation of how a time travel tourist agency would work, you will be disappointed. There are some interesting tidbits (such as how the hotel keeps a period costumer on staff, but there is a strict no-Blackface policy—good). However, I think this is probably for the best. This is not a mystery about time travel tourism. Rather, the mystery here is about much more familiar topics: greed, lust for power, betrayal, and the desire for dignity.
I don’t know that I would say I loved this book, but I think a good measure of how much I enjoyed any book is how much I wanted to keep reading. While I wouldn’t say this was “unputdownable,” and perhaps much of my reading was motivated by the nice weather that let me sit on my deck for an extended period of time for the first time this season, The Paradox Hotel definitely held my interest. Fans of thrillers might enjoy this even more.