Passenger, Book 1

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Passenger, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Taut time-travel adventure-romance explores race, sex bias.

Parents say

age 12+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will get a taste of what the various time periods were like, from descriptions of clothing and architecture to major historical events, real people and places, and laws and customs. Nicholas and Sophia explain to Etta why she must dress and behave a certain way to blend in with that time's propriety. It will be eye-opening for some readers to see how, despite being a free man, Nicholas, who is half black, must resign himself to the prejudice and institutional racism -- such as legal slavery and miscegenation laws -- that forbid him from living as he pleases or loving Etta openly without inviting scorn (or worse). Teens will get a sense of how challenging it was (and is) being a person of color -- or a woman -- in any historical time period.

Positive Messages

Passenger points out how much racism costs people of color who must deal with and overcome discrimination in myriad ways that others can't understand. It also reveals the way women must endure being underestimated or excluded from accessing power due to sexism. Nicholas and Etta are stronger together than apart.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Nicholas and Etta are both smart, strong, courageous, and talented. Nicholas has managed to thrive despite the pervasive racism of his original time, and Etta goes from being someone who must overcome crippling stage fright to someone who can fiercely protect herself and those she loves.


Violence occurs in every century Etta and Nicholas visit. People die during a pirate's raid (there's mention of a man who was sliced in half by a sword), by falling off a cliff, or from injuries sustained by weapons such as guns or knives. Plenty of characters are severely injured or fall seriously ill. 


A slow-burning romance between older teens (she's nearly 18, he's nearly 20) includes several blush-worthy moments, such as when he helps her unlace her corset and she notices he's shirtless, but eventually their obvious yearning culminates in passionate kisses and one love scene, but it's "fade to black" style, with the language concentrating on the couple's overwhelming feelings rather than what they're doing physically. It should be noted, however, that there's no mention of birth control.


One use of "s--t-sack" and a few of "Negro," "damn," "bloody hell," "arse," "slave," "stupid," and "idiot."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Sailors drink, a couple to excess and one so much that he makes inappropriate comments. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Passenger is a globe-trotting time-travel adventure that spans centuries and should appeal to readers who like big concepts, detailed characterization, and slow-burning romance. Since the book's protagonists are an 18th-century sailor who's the son of a slave (and her master) and a 21st-century virtuoso violinist who's a white feminist, author Alexandra Bracken doesn't shy away from discussing issues of race and gender, both in a historical and a contemporary context. There are a few instances when "Negro" or "slave" or "colored" are used, although there are relatively few curse words for a young-adult novel. Though the romantic tension and longing is high, there's only one love scene, and it's tastefully written in a "fade-to-black" sentence. The threat of violence is of more concern than the actual violence, but there are some ruthless characters willing to kill, and there's a small body count and people left for dead.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bym2deloria October 30, 2019

Time Travel for Teens

This book doesn’t get bogged down in the sciences time travel, but instead focuses on the difficulties the characters may face as a women, and as a black man in... Continue reading
Teen, 17 years old Written bymjett5577 July 25, 2016

An okay time traveling "romance"

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will d... Continue reading

What's the story?

PASSENGER is an epic thriller about two teen time-travelers. Etta Spencer is a 17-year-old violin prodigy in modern-day New York City on the brink of her professional debut. Nineteen-year-old Nicholas is the adopted son of an 18th-century sea captain trying to escape his nefarious biological family, the Ironwoods, who want little to do with him, since his mother was their slave. Etta doesn't know she's a time traveler, but when she's kidnapped through a "passage" at the Metropolitan Museum, she ends up in 1776 on Nicholas' ship, to be taken back to the Ironwoods as part of a contract he'd like to fulfill so he can then be done with the Ironwoods forever. That is, until he actually meets Etta and realizes she has no idea who the Ironwoods are and what they want from her. Old Mr. Ironwood blackmails Etta to find a mysterious device he claims her mother (also, obviously, a time traveler) stole from him years ago and hid in another century. If she can't find it by a certain date, he'll kill her mother. Ironwood also coerces Nicholas to accompany Etta -- to make sure the device is brought back to him. As Etta and Nicholas set off across centuries and continents, they forge first a friendship and then something more, but time is not on their side.

Is it any good?

Compelling and difficult to put down, this is a story that teaches about the past while also commenting on the present. Author Alexandra Bracken's popular dystopian trilogy The Darkest Minds is also action-packed and filled with capable characters and a strong romance, but Passenger takes things to another level by adding historical settings and context. Born in Colonial America to a slave and her master, Nicholas has the good fortune of being brought up by open-minded white relatives who free him and teach him how to be a seaman. To Nicholas, freedom is the sea, and his undeniable feelings for Etta seem dangerous and a distraction compared with the promise of his own ship. Meanwhile, Etta, who was raised in New York City where multiracial couples are commonplace, freely flirts, stares, and with her 21st-century mind doesn't understand how impossible the situation must seem to Nicholas.

The time rules vary from easy-to-understand (passengers can't visit a time in which they might come across themselves) to a bit more mercurial. But the only troublesome issue is that Cyrus Ironwood is almost too evil a villain. He's basically inhuman, but perhaps future installments will fix that. The supporting characters are wonderfully written, from Nicholas' inner circle of two -- his kind and wise father figure, Captain Hall, and fellow adopted brother, Chase -- to Etta's grandmotherly violin instructor, Alice, and her secret cousin, Hasan. Kudos to Bracken for tackling race, gender roles, family expectations, teen relationships, and the way power and greed corrupt men. Once readers finish the scream-inducing cliffhanger, they'll need to know what happens next.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the popularity of time travel in books and movies. What makes the theme unique in this book?

  • How does the author tackle tough subjects such as race and discrimination? What are the overt and subtle ways Nicholas has to deal with people treating him as less or undermining him because of the color of his skin? 

  • Which would you choose: altering something in history to benefit you personally, even if it messes up society in general, or "fixing" a historical crisis but risking the future as you know it?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love romance and historical fiction

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