It’s normal enough to open a book review by making a general observation about the common nature of this or that trope in fiction, and then go on to introduce a book that twists said trope in some fashion. Perhaps there are too many notches on my reading belt, but many a time I have read such reviews, read the book in question, then thought to myself “In fact there is nothing really unique about the novel… It is a blatant representation of the trope, only the details of setting or character differ slightly….” Thus, while no two grains of sand may be alike, standing on a beach they all look the same. Robert Charles Wilson’s time travel novel Last Year (2016) is standing on the beach—the perfect metaphor for the most appropriate place to read the book.
Jesse Cullum is a strapping young man employed as security by The City, a specialized urban area constructed in the Illinois prairie in the mid-19th century by 21st century tycoon August Kemp. Kemp having constructed a time portal between 2016 and 1877, The City contains hotels and other accomodations for people from the future to visit the past, and likewise provides tourist attractions for locals to come and see wondrous things from the future, such as helicopters and smartphones. Cullum saving the life of President Ulysses Grant from a would-be assassin in the opening pages, the follow-up investigation reveals a trickle of illegal guns from the future, somehow being trafficked through the time portal. Cullum a hero as a result, he is given a raise and assigned the task of finding the source of the guns. Meeting 21st century agent Elizabeth DePaul in the process, together the two get to the bottom of the smuggling ring. But that is only the beginning. Political agitators and Kemp’s secret ambitions, as well as ghosts from Cullum’s past rising to the surface, things heat up for Cullum, and fast. Time seems to hold no influence on greed and payback.