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'The Paradox Hotel' is a mashup of sci-fi and crime fiction

Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart
Ballantine Books

Rob Hart's The Paradox Hotel is a strange novel that smashes together some of the best elements of science fiction and crime to deliver a story in which time is broken — and some crucial events that have a huge impact on the present haven't happened yet. And they may not happen at all.

Despite time traveling and murder residing at the core of the story, this is also a tale that explores grief and the way memories can carry us and, in some instances, hurt us.

January Cole is in charge of security at the Paradox Hotel, a place where trillionaire tourists stay when they're travelling to and from different time periods. Because of the nature of what happens in and around the hotel and its proximity to the timeport, things like clocks running backwards for a few seconds are seen as normal. January's job includes things like thwarting an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln before he ran for president and stopping people from smuggling dinosaur eggs.

With a big summit being held soon to decide who will be the new owner of the hotel — and thus who will have access to the past and all the potential effects of trying to change it even if that goes against the rules set forth by the Time Enforcement Agency — January's job becomes even more complicated. She finds a body that no one else can see, a ghost child seems to be following her, a snowstorm causes chaos at the hotel, a hacker is cutting the security footage, there is a kleptomaniac ghost on the lose, and someone apparently wants to hurt some of the ultra-rich bidders hoping to own the place. Even worse, January's "Unstuck," a condition she developed by being exposed to radiation for too long while on the job that makes her slip momentarily into the past and sometimes the future. And she's getting worse. Between the maelstrom of problems at hand and January's condition and crippling grief at having lost her partner in a kitchen accident, dealing with what appears to be a growing tear in the fabric of time is no easy task.

The Paradox Hotel is as funny and entertaining as it is dark and complex. Any narrative dealing with the concept of time traveling is bound to get complicated, but Hart handles it well — and even the experts in the story accept that they don't know everything. For example, while rich tourists can travel to Ancient Egypt, the Triassic Period, or the Battle of Gettysburg, no one can travel into the future. The simple explanation is this: The past already happened but the future hasn't — and the decision we make in the present affect it, so it's unstable. This makes January's condition more complicated because she can see glimpses of the future, and that reinforces the fact that every decision she makes can lead to something tragic.

While there are enough science-fiction elements here to make this a novel that comfortably fits into that genre, the many crime fiction elements present make it a hybrid narrative that instead inhabits the interstitial space between science fiction and crime. January's demeanor, for example, is a fresh version of the wisecracking PI of classic noir novels. Also while her sidekick is a drone, the banter between them is hilarious. And their conversations are not the only funny thing here. Even some of the attempts at changing the past — all of which January stops — are humorous. For example, a man tries to go back in time to invest in Betamax and "kill" VHS, which could have changed a lot of things. Also, a woman tries to board the Titanic so she can warn them about the iceberg and "save Rose and Jack."

Despite all that humor, The Paradox Hotel is also a very dark novel where topics like the rich elites doing whatever they want without checks and balances ("Money can do strange things to people. It can make them compromise themselves and their values") and topics like global warming and racism make an appearance, showing that there are awful things even technological advances can't make disappear. Also, January is haunted by the loss of Mena, her partner, and her grating personality is even worse because she can't cope with the pain, which makes her lash out at everyone around her and at herself:

"With a monumental amount of effort, the kind of effort it would take to move a planet, I tilt my head slightly toward the bed. Mena's side, still mussed into the shape of her. It still smells like her. I've been sleeping on the floor the last few days. I don't know why. I feel like I don't deserve a bed. Don't deserve comfort. Not in a world where Mena doesn't exist anymore."

The Paradox Hotel is all about an impossible crime being investigated by a woman at the edge of sanity who can't even control when and where she is because at any moment she can glimpse the future or slip into the past. This wildly entertaining combination, along with Hart's relentless pacing, make this a rare hybrid that has something for everyone. Hart's preoccupation with the future, which he started exploring in The Warehouse, his previous novel, takes center stage here, and the result is a tale of loss with a noir heart and a soul made of hard sci-fi that does each genre justice without ever allowing one of them to overpower the other.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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