Time Snatchers, by Richard Ungar (Putnam Juvenile, March 2012, mg/ya, 384 pages).
Thirteen year old Caleb is one of a small group of orphans, collected by "Uncle" and trained to use secret time travelling technology to travel from the present (2061) into the past. There they must steal valuable cultural treasures (like the first photograph, and the first Frisbee), and replace them with replicas before time travel takes its toll on them. Three hours in the past, and you die from lack of oxygen.
At first Uncle was a kindly patron, but now he has become a megalomaniac and sadistic dictator, blinded by ambition. Punishments for failed snatches are brutal. Caleb's fellow orphan, Frank, is pushing hard to be the best, even if that means sabotaging the snatches Caleb and his partner Abbie are supposed to be making. Abbie seems to be falling for Frank (and since Caleb is falling for Abbie, this hurts pretty badly), and on top of that, Uncle has begun an aggressive campaign of kidnapping young children to swell the ranks of the Time Snatchers. Caleb is beginning to long for a way out of his life as time travelling thief.
On a time snatch back to the sixties, Caleb meets the family he's always dreamt off. But Uncle never lets anyone go....and his punishments, as Caleb knows too well, are bloody and even deadly.
Ungar's writing brings the tense situations that Caleb faces vividly to life--scenes of places and times from around the world are flashed in front of the reader with great clarity, told with an urgent immediacy in Caleb's first person voice. And although the first few pages are somewhat heavy on explanations, once the action gets going, it basically never stops.
Caleb's situation is truly awful--he is psychologically or physically abused, sent on dangerous missions with no time to relax and enjoy the pass, and he's emotionally bent out of shape by his feelings for Abbie and the seeming betrayal of her feelings for Frank (since he is more than a little inarticulate in communicating with Abbie, this last problem is to a large extent of his own making, and I wanted to shake him more than once, but still. Not nice for him). He is more victim than hero; fortunately, Abbie steps up to save the day (yay Abbie! I liked her).
I found the mechanics of the time travelling a little opaque. Ungar relies on lightly sketched technology, consisting of computerized implants handling the logistical details, which is fine, except that I'm not sure it always works by consistent rules. At times it seemed a tad too magical--the mind speaking, for instance, stretched credulity--and there were seeming inconsistencies. It become hard for me to suspend disbelief, for instance, when time sickness doesn't actually kill Caleb after weeks of being banished to the past (possibly he got a special upgraded implant. But if so, I didn't notice it happening), and the kidnapped children are also brought from various time periods to Caleb's present without any ill effects. Likewise, I can't quite accept a memory wiping pill that works with delicate precision to erase only what the main characters want it too. I had to read very quickly at times to keep from thinking about the mechanics and logistics of it all, afraid that if I did, the whole edifice might collapse.
There are very few moments of peace or happiness here, making this one for readers who prefer dark intensity with lots of action (and cool technology) to peaceful escapism. Some of the torments that Uncle inflicts are truly grotesque and disturbing (being forced to stick your arm into a tank of flesh eating turtles...having bits of your body chopped off), and these particulars, plus the general feeling Caleb gave me of hopeless victimhood, makes this one for older middle grade or even YA readers--seventh and eight graders, perhaps.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)