I heard about Downtime from the Bitchery when its name came up as a book on sale. Obviously, I'm gonna have to read a m/m romance about a FBI agent who time travels to Victorian England and tries to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper while falling in love with Ezra, a psychic. That's pure crack right there. The book did not live up to expectations, but I could see why it has a big following.
Downtime is about Morgan Nash, an FBI agent who finds himself in Victorian England because a group of Victorian guys break the cardinal rule we all learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Don't speak Latin in front of the books”. The group of men are roommates in a boarding house. They have Morgan stay with them, and they try to protect him and figure out how to get him home. Meanwhile, Morgan slowly acclimates to his surroundings, falls in love with fellow boarder Ezra, and decides to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper while he's there.
I have two big problems with the book. One was that the setting seemed false, and the other is that I could not stand the protagonist, Morgan, who is also the first-person narrator.
Let's start with setting. Morgan has some gripes about Victorian England, but not very many. Mostly, it lacks air conditioning. The food is good. He talks about the fear homosexuals live in, and yet he never seems to feel any of that fear himself. It's as though he thinks that because he's from the future, where he thinks it's safe to be gay in modern America (something I would argue is not always true) he must be immune to any kind of persecution in Victorian England. Morgan “fixes” things with the housemaid so that now she becomes the adored and pampered semi-adopted daughter of the boardinghouse owner – something that was so wildly implausible that although of course I was pleased to see a child's circumstances improve, I also writhed in agony every time I had to read more about that sub-plot. This isn't Victorian England; this is just a nice place where people from the future can feel superior while wearing nifty clothes and avoiding or eliminating all forms of discrimination and inequality.
Morgan narrates the book, and I'm so sorry, book fans, but I truly loathed this guy. Please, jump into the comments section and show me what I'm missing, because I thought he was a simply dreadful person. I do appreciate that Morgan doesn't start off as perfect but instead has to change and grow in order to find happiness. That's a great writing concept. People should grow and change, and perfect characters are boring to read about. I just don't think that Morgan changes and grows enough. He starts of as a superior, patronizing person who can't let love into his heart, and he winds up as a superior, patronizing person who can let love into his heart. His patronizing attitude towards Ezra drove me mad. Although he comes to accept that Ezra is a true psychic and not a fraud or schizophrenic, he's still patronizing. His efforts to “fix” everyone around him are clearly seen by the author as good efforts, and they made me want to slap him. He shows no curiosity or sense of wonder about where he is and how he got there. He's not even a good agent. Not only do I not want him and Ezra to end up together, I don't even want him to survive the book.
Here's why I think the book is so popular: it involves a ton of wish fulfillment. Who wouldn't want to be able to hear from dead loved ones, and think that they are protecting you? Who wouldn't want an assurance that the after life is warm and comfortable? Who wouldn't want to live in a version of Victorian England where you get to wear cool clothes, everyone around you smells OK and is very clean, the food is good, and the only discomforts are lack of air conditioning and hot and cold running water? Above all, the theme of creating a family is a powerful one. Morgan gets a large, supportive, and protective family, complete with a plot moppet. Plus, Morgan is slightly humbled, yet still in charge – he's very much the alpha in his new home. And, he gets to live openly among his new family with his same sex partner in an atmosphere of acceptance, with an abundance of material comforts and security thanks to some admittedly excellent financial planning on his part.
Some people read purely for fantasy (fantasy in the sense of envisioning something you desire, not in the sense of the genre). I think that's totally legitimate. I also think that those readers might really like Downtime – obviously, a lot of them already do. Because I didn't like the protagonist, and because I require a little more accuracy and plausibility with my wish fulfillment, I was disappointed.