A desperate Takahiro O’Leary is about to commit suicide when the phone rings. On the other side of the line is an offer he can’t refuse. To become an employee of the Axon Corporation doing something almost unimaginable and definitely dangerous: exploring and mapping parallel timelines. As a seasoned traveler, explorer and former TV presenter, he is uniquely suited for the job even if he doesn’t quite know how it all works.
Cue to four years later and Tak is on the run from the Corporation, carrying with him a stolen suitcase with a copy of The Machine inside. His mission is to find his childhood friend Samira Moheb before time runs out (literally). As it turns out, the Corporation has nefarious plans for this timeline: to overwrite it with a timeline in which The Corporation controls everything. And in that timeline, Samira does not exist.
A veteran of the Iraq War suffering from PTSD, Samira can hardly believe her eyes when she sees Tak, who she thought was dead all these years. She most certainly cannot believe the things he tells her about impossible time travel shenanigans until she sees it all with her own eyes. And then they realize that things are worse than they could ever imagine and that the brilliant scientist behind the Machine has different plans altogether—one that involves the end of the world as they know it and the discovery of a malleable alternate universe called The Beautiful Land.
Oh, The Beautiful Land you had so many cool things going for you! A fun premise involving parallel realities, good writing—especially when adding touches of Horror—and a pair of entirely relatable (and POC!) protagonists, the Japanese-Irish Tak and the Iranian-American Samira. And even though this is not really about time travel as I originally thought, the idea of different parallel worlds is still one I love, and I was on board with the way this was portrayed (connected to our world but mostly independent realities). Above all, you have such an amazing character in Samira and I loved the thoughtful, heart-wrenching portrayal of her PTSD, the details of her condition, the constant feeling of fear mixed with guilt as well as her determination and quiet resilience. I loved that she was a war veteran and a translator as well as the way that small memory snippets were incorporated into the narrative without making them info-dumps and which allowed us to see her bittersweet past relationship with her father. Actually, the way that memory is connected with the overall arc is really interesting (the power of memory and imagination have indispensible importance here).
But The Beautiful Land, did you really need to have more plot holes than a Swiss cheese after being chewed by millions of tiny little worms?
Because really, let me get this straight. You have a maniacal villain who happens to be a genius who invented a way to travel into different realities and yet he is not able to use his own machine? The one that HE INVENTED? And, OK, I get that he is completely deranged but his Ultimate Evil Plan makes absolutely no sense especially considering how he went about it without even a whiff of a back-up plan. I also never truly understood why Tak—and only Tak—was so essential for their plans? And how did the Corporation know exactly when to call him to interrupt his suicide if this is not about time travel at all (in fact at that point in time, the Corporation hadn’t even started using the Machine). Then, of course, you have the faux science to explain things:
The Machine isn't like a dishwater or a computer, you know? It's more like a musical instrument. It's like jazz. You have to get a feel for it.
And, there’s a myriad of ways in which the story backtracked, the many inconsistencies and contrived plot twists that appeared whenever the characters needed them (a second SECRET Machine! A second SECRET suitcase!) and so on and so forth. And how about how there was not a single reference to the fact that Tak tried to kill himself when the book started? So he got over whatever it is that was driving him to despair that easily? Or how about this for illogical: If the Beautiful Land is a malleable reality of the IMAGINATION and fuelled by the mind, why did you need timeline travel at all?
Due to all that, there was a moment when I was reading The Beautiful Land when I had to make a very conscious decision: to either be willing to suspend disbelief and forget all the things that were bothering me or stop reading. I took a leap of faith and even though it hasn’t entirely paid off (so many plot holes!), this still proved to be quite the innocuous fun for its dangerous escapades and the sweet relationship between Samira (Samira!) and Tak.
In Book Smugglerish, 6 reality checks out of 10.