THE RIVER OF NO RETURN, by Bee Ridgway. Dutton, 452 pp., $27.95
In "The River of No Return," Bee Ridgway proposes an elegantly simple method of time travel: Some people have a facility for moving around in time, but this talent is usually discovered only accidentally, under duress. At a moment of extreme peril, a person with the talent may "jump" -- vanish and reappear at a later time.
An organization has grown up to identify time travelers and regulate the jumping. The Guild's stated mission is to preserve the orderly flow of history, but the reader soon suspects -- more quickly than our hero does -- there is more to the Guild's mission than meets the eye.
Wrenched from the path of a sword at the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, Lord Nicholas Falcott finds himself in a Guild hospital in 2003. After a period of adjustment to modern life, Nick is recruited for a secret mission and sent back, breaking the cardinal rule of the Guild: "There Is No Return." Nick must hide his new futuristic perspective, even when thrown into the political debate over the Corn Bill, the first of the protectionist laws enacted in England after the Napoleonic Wars to keep corn prices high and landowners rich. Will Nick the time-traveler behave differently from Nick the aristocrat, knowing the outcome of the battle he is fighting?
"The Corn Bill will pass. People will starve. The barons and earls will be rich for another generation," says the Russian count sent to instruct Nick in his Guild mission. How Nick votes on the Corn Bill is immaterial, Count Lebedev adds: "It tells me if you are a good man, but it does not matter."
Although Ridgway's characters discuss the perennial moral question of time-travel -- if you had a chance to kill the infant Hitler, would you? -- they are not concerned with the great characters in history. For the Guild, time is a great river, and any one person, even one who knows how to jump out of the water like a fish, is still carried by the current.
"The River of No Return" is also a romance -- in places, quite the bodice-ripper. Ridgway has a light and clever touch. Would sexual experience in the future help or hinder in the pursuit of love in an earlier era? And while blue jeans are a joy of modern life, undressing clearly made for better foreplay in 1815.
Danger looms in the future, the Guild's enemy remains a bit vague, and the plot wouldn't stand up under a microscope. But in the end, "The River of No Return" satisfies. Ridgway's concern is not whether the ends justify the means -- nor whether it's important to be on the winning side of history -- but instead whether your choices make you the kind of person you can live with forever, come what may.