I’ve been a part of a four-guy science fiction book club since 2009. Each month, one of us picks a book and we meet the first Tuesday of each month. Over the past year or so, I’ve started a new thing: on the books I don’t select, I don’t read the book description. I just download the audiobook and start listening.
I want the book to reveal itself it me without any preconceived notions. Now, typically, around the 20-25% mark, I might circle back and read the description but not always. I ended up doing that for this book because after the first section, I was genuinely curious what kind of book this was.
Think about it: when you hear the words “Sea of Tranquility,” what do you think of? The moon, right? Me, too. Well, there are scenes in this book set on the moon, but I think the title speaks to something more.
So, what is this book about? Well, it involves multiple characters over multiple times. Oh, and there’s time travel (but don’t worry: there’s not a lot of science to get in the way of a good story).
In 1912, a British scion from a prominent family is walking in the woods in British Columbia when, suddenly, he has the feeling of being somewhere else. He’s inside a great room he interprets as a train station. He hears something mechanical that he cannot identify. And he hears violin music.
In late 2019, at a party in New York, a woman is approached by a man. He asks her about her brother, a performance artist, who includes a snippet of video they shot in the forests of British Columbia when they were teenagers. On the video, the camera catches something that appears to be a hanger, and a few notes of violin music.
In 2203, a famous author is on a book tour and she’s in an airship terminal in Oklahoma City and, as the airships disembark, she sees a man playing violin and she has the sudden feeling that she's in a forest.
And in a future time (honestly I forgot what year this part takes place in), a time travel agent volunteers to research the strange anomalies that may or may not link all of these people.
Had I read the description, I would have been all in, but experiencing it the way I did—just the opening chapters set in 1912 then instantly jumping to 2019 with a reference to the upcoming pandemic—was a bit jarring. But I was hooked.
And the book didn’t let up. With each shift of characters, Mandel also shifts the point of view. Oh, and the audiobook was fantastic: with each POV change, it was a different narrator, so if you enjoy audiobooks, you’ll love this one.
I am not going to give away any more details because if I do, you might be able to infer the ending. I’m happy to say that I didn’t see it coming, but when it did, I literally cheered in my car as I drove to the office. It is a great ending to a wonderful book.
In the days since, I’ve told the story to my wife, my parents, and to a fellow saxophone player in my orchestra who went out and bought the book herself.
Of all the books I’ve read in my SF book club, if I’m measuring by emotional impact, then John Scalzi’s Redshirts still takes the prize. But The Sea of Tranquility will now be ranked as one of the best books I’ve read, both this year and of the entire and ongoing book club.
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