“If scientists wrote books and argued about Time and wormholes and alternate realities, James Hackaday Parrett wasn’t going to figure it out while pulling up his socks.”

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The Black Canary has been one of firsts for me. I have never read a time-travel story with a black, minority, or bi-racial lead. I’ll admit that is one of the reasons why this book was chosen during my Black Friday Haul. Normally, I don’t like covers with people on it either, but I rarely ever see any with someone who resemble me. Well, and not be about slavery. I could be biased, but this one is striking. This author, Curry, is a new one for me as well.

The Black Canary is a time traveling historical fiction centered around a too-curious, biracial boy from a family that is in love with music more than anything. James though? Oh, he hates it. Music is all his parents talk about and what they expect him to talk about, live and breathe it. But music is the thing they focus all their attention on, over him, always a song or a fingering on the piano or a concert or building a lute.

The music is everything, and he doesn’t understand and is invisible and mute in the wake of it. Until he discovers the window to the past in his uncle’s basement to 17th century London. There, music might be the thing that leads him home or traps him forever.

James reminded me of Eustace Scrubb a bit though he’s not quite a dragon. He’s understandably something of a brat but clever and curious. No, not a brat. He’s childish. There are a few references to Alice in Wonderland, and I very much liked that. The mad worlds of Wonderland and 17th century London. Alice and James. Two very different characters and settings yet still they share interesting parallels.

 I don’t feel the author fully took advantage of the other worldliness of time traveling to 16th century and making it a proper world. There was much detailed description that slowed the pacing a good bit. Perhaps I have little patience for descriptions. I typically skim them. They were beautiful though and the visions they drew in my mind were perfect. Old London, gray and misty, twisting mazes called streets, and grand towers. 

At times, I  was confused a little bit by which characters were which that weren’t Plumed Hat and Jack Garland or the poet who was the most frightful and entertaining of the bunch of side characters. I never understood them though, their motivations very vague as James never makes any effort to connect with them. The other characters are plot devices rather than actual characters.

As James is traveling through London of the 17th century on occassion, he notices that he is in the middle of a sea of white faces. It unsettles him, but he isn’t treated maliciously for being ‘African’, mostly regarded curiously. There were a few facts dropped about Queen Elizabeth who reigned during that time having ‘blackamoor’ dancers and singers, and how an African prince once visited. Once or twice, James actually spots another black person among the Londoners or perhaps imagines it. So the aspects of race are only very lightly touched on.

I remember when I was younger, I would choose to do things differently than my siblings simply because I didn’t want to be like them. I wanted to be different from them, not who they expected. James is going through the same, trying to subvert and rebel against the expectation to embrace music as obsessively as his family. James learns what it is to be seen and heard. He learns what it is about that calms and centers his awkward dad and totally enraptures his mama. He begins to see where he might fit, not as the In-Between son of her and him, but as James Himself. He doesn’t do it for them, but for him.

I read a short story called Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin a while ago. If you never have, I recommend you do, but it centers around the world that is Harlem and music. Music tells a story. It’s as important to a culture as literature, telling us who we are and who we could be. How we break and how we get put back together. The Black Canary doesn’t go as far as that which is interesting how much duller a full novel is in comparison with a short story.

Nothing about the book really amazed me, but it’s relatively short as a juvenile, middle grade fiction book at only 279 pages. I liked it, liked James, and it was okay. It was interesting to read about from James’ perspective and in that setting. The historical aspects were wonderful and solid as much as I could tell. I’d like to see more of this kind of story and maybe for an older audience. The historical setting, I felt, was great but I think it would have been  more engaging if it had explored more of the racial aspects of an ‘African’ in 17th century London, truly built a world rather than descriptors, and fleshed out side characters.

Have you read something like this before, minority time travellers? Maybe something more dynamic. Let me know or share any time travel novels you’ve read that you enjoyed.

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