The premise of this story piqued my interest immediately. I’m a huge fan of stories that include multimedia, so when I opened the e-book to find gorgeous vintage photographs with accompanying little biographies, I was drawn in immediately, compelled to read on. I found this aspect creative and unique and was sad there wasn’t more of it throughout the novel.
Mercury Boys follows fish-out-of-water, 16-year-old Saskia, who has arrived in Coventon on the back of her mother’s infidelity that broke up her family. Now living with just her dad, Saskia has to adapt to life and school in a new place. She’s biracial in a predominantly white community, struggling to fit in.
When she’s assigned a project studying a figure from history, Saskia is first introduced to the historical figure and enigmatic photographer Robert Cornelius. She becomes enamoured with him, particularly the daguerreotype (the first commercially successful process of photography) of him she’s able to get her hands on through her new friend, Lila. One evening, she falls asleep holding the daguerreotype and finds herself lost in time.
What follows is best described in the book’s blurb itself, “history and speculative collide with the modern world when a group of high school girls form a secret society after discovering they can communicate with boys from the past.”
I found this a really entertaining premise that was ultimately not fully realised. I was engaged from the beginning, particularly as the time travel aspect came into play, but found moments lacking any true depth. Toward the end, as the stakes grew higher, I felt a lot more engaged, but there were whole sections of the novel that I really had to motivate myself to read through.
I will candidly admit that Mercury Boys suffered a little bit due to the fact that I was reading it digitally. I am sure I would have read it in half the time had I had a physical copy on me. Furthermore, the formatting of the ARC meant it was difficult to read on my Kindle, so I resorted to reading it on my laptop. Never underestimate the impact the medium you’re reading has on your engagement. Having said that, it only took me a week to read. While that might be slow by my standards, it was still a breeze to read.
Now, if you haven’t read Mercury Boys and would like to, I suggest you stop reading the review here, as I am about to reveal some somewhat spoilery aspects below. Thanks!
Considering the book focused so heavily on the time travel element and is being marketed as such, I was surprised by how little we engaged in the act itself. The novel spent far more time talking about time travel than it did actually travelling through time. The strength of the novel lay in Paige’s Frenemy status and the manipulative way she managed to construct the friendship group.
I didn’t like Paige and Sara Beth from the beginning, and I think the author set up their subtle villainy well. They seemed to me like the kind of girls we all went to school with - way too much freedom, way too much money, and way too many liberties. They were spoilt in a way that brought out a viciously ugly side to them. The subtle undermining of the most submissive friend, Adrienne, and the catty manipulation of Saskia was something I’d seen before in my life. The sisters felt painfully real for that reason, so although I hated them, they were interesting characters.
Saskia however, was a weak protagonist. She had so much promise and potential as a child of divorce, and black girl. Instead, the divorce storyline was dropped and picked back up at poorly paced and inappropriate moments. The fact that she was biracial was used, very sparingly, and without much thought. There was a glimmer when Saskia first meets Cornelius in the late 1800s when she realises her race and sex may leave her vulnerable. But it is never mentioned again. This felt like a missed opportunity to what could have been a really interesting challenge to time travel as a person of colour. Saskia spent a majority of the book under Paige’s thumb, treating her only genuine friend, Lila, like crap. On the one hand, this was a great example of how toxic friends can infiltrate your life, but it negated my ability to feel a connection to the protagonist.
On that note, because we spent hardly any time in our 1800s location, I felt absolutely no stakes in Saskia’s relationship with Robert Cornelius (whom she calls Cornelius, I’m still not sure why). In fact, I was left feeling their friendship (because nothing really happens between them despite each girl calling these historical figures their ‘boyfriends’) was weird and creepy. She’s sixteen, seemingly in love with a much older man, married with children.
I’ve since discovered Cornelius is a real historical figure, which also sits uneasily with me.
We had no more than five dreams/time travel sequences with them interacting, which left me thoroughly disappointed. In the end, when she breaks up with him, I felt no emotion other than relief.
Each of the girls was given a little limelight into their dream time-travel experiences. I thought this was great in theory, but the execution was lacking. Saskia’s storyline certainly didn’t grab me, which was a shame, because the history of early photography is fascinating. Adrienne’s Civil War soldier had his moments, but Paige and Sara Beth’s stories bored me. I suppose that’s all right because it turned out to be complete lies. Lila however… is another story.
Lila, Saskia’s very patient and accommodating friend, was the saving grace of this book. Not only was she the only rational, kind, and interesting character, but she had the most riveting time travel sequence of the whole book. Her romantic interest in suffragette Cassie was so cool and fascinating and I could not believe we only had one snippet of it. I wondered if I was biased, as a lesbian myself, connecting to Lila felt very natural to me. However, I’ve checked on Goodreads and seen this as a common theme in reviews. If the book had been about Lila, it would have gotten five out of five stars immediately.
There were some moments in the story that took me out of the realm of suspending my disbelief. For example, the girls decide to get the initials MBC (Mercury Boys Club) tattooed. The results are described as pus-filled and inflamed, which can only mean they’re infected. I only have one tattoo, mind, but something as small as MBC shouldn’t cause any irritation, let alone immediately after getting it. The girls stealing the daguerreotypes from Lila’s place of work at the museum appeared to have no repercussions until it served the plot. Some of these things I could overlook if I was head-over-heels for the story, but sadly I wasn’t.
By Chandra Prasad
360 pages. 2021.