REVIEW: The Next Together by Lauren James

Disclaimer: The following is an honest review, but it would be dishonest of me not to reveal that the author, Lauren James, is one of my good friends.

The Next Together, debut YA novel by Lauren James, will be published in September 2015. I’ve been lucky enough to read it both in its infancy and in its polished final form. Here’s a review of the latter. You can follow Lauren on twitter @Lauren_E_James or see her reblogs of Dylan O’Brien on her tumblr.

Reincarnation romance. Snarkily modern campus comedy. Period drama. Conspiracy thriller. YA adventure romp. (Katherine Finchley is definitely one to appreciate the idea of adventurous romps.) The Next Together is a book wearing many hats, if you’ll entertain the image. Lauren James’ first novel is ambitious in its scope whilst centring around the intimacy of its two main characters. But then, are there not worlds contained in every relationship? The Galloways are not just any couple.

“How many times can you lose the person you love?” demands the tagline. A lot, as it turns out. We follow (three different sets of) Matthew and Katherine through three main timelines: the 1745 siege of Carlisle, 1845 and the run-up to the Crimean War, and 2039, where the UK finds itself teetering on the precipice of war once more. There is much to enjoy in each subplot. The eighteenth century plot has a fine line in comedy of manners and matters of class, and also features the most Scottish iteration of Matthew, which is alone enough to recommend it. 1845 is all subterfuge and sea voyages – think The Tempest but with more military maladministration. The historical backgrounds are well-researched but used delicately enough that they never intrude on the story. The stacked timelines show how the ripples the protagonists make reverberate through history, in ways both subtle and game-changing.

More than historical hijinks, though, the novel seems concerned with who we are and how we get there. Matthew and Katherine are different people in each timeline. Though Katherine is always a feisty redhead and Matthew is always a nerd, the circumstances of their birth vary wildly, so we end up with mismatched pairs who end up together anyway: servant and lady, journalist and street urchin. This is character exploration at its most exhaustive, as we spend a novel finding out just what these two people do when pulled this way or pushed that.

Threading steadily through these intertwining timelines is a timeline closer to our own than any of the others, that of Matt and Kate in 2019. They die in the prologue and haunt the rest of the book. Peppered throughout the novel are fragments of their life together, a life spent flirting and working and taking personality quizzes. The Galloways in 2019 form a convenient reference point for who Matthew and Katherine are and what they mean to each other – or what they could mean to each other, given the chance. It could be gimmicky, if their romance weren’t so utterly charming. It’s easy to root for a couple so obviously in love, and the snapshots of the 2019 timeline leave you willing the characters in the other timelines to get their act together and kiss already.

The romance is a major part of the book, but at its roots, The Next Together is a stealthy science fiction. The mystery introduced in the first few pages – “Where have I seen you before?” – is solved in the blurb, but there is (fortunately) a much more interesting question to follow: “Why have I seen you before?” Why are these two people constantly drawn together, in every life they live? The answer seems to be in the idiosyncratic coding language that crops up every couple of scenes, suggesting a source that is somewhat less than mystical… This point of intrigue is enough to keep any reader hooked, especially as the pace picks up in the third act and things start exploding. On the surface, this is a story about two people who go on a lot of adventures and sometimes kiss, but there’s a whole lot of cleverness keeping the plot ticking along. By the end, you will need the sequel with every fibre of your being. It’s going to be worth the wait.

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