Apart from her persistent nightmares, in which she repeatedly dreams of her own death in new and horrifying ways at the hands of a hauntingly familiar stranger, high school junior Lillie’s life is fairly normal. She hangs out with her friends—guy-crazy, model-wannabe Sylv and tomboyish, academic-minded Jo—spats with former friend-turned-queen bee Melissa, dabbles in photography, angsts over her less-than-glamorous figure, and worries about the future. In the small town of Green Grove, everyone knows everyone else, and even the smallest bit of change is big news, which is why the arrival of the enigmatic Tom at the start of the school year throws everyone for a loop.
As to be expected, Tom gravitates towards Melissa and her crowd, but something keeps drawing Lillie and Tom together, despite some initial rockiness. It’s not friendship, for he’s continually rude to her. It’s not attraction, for what could he see in a girl like Lillie? It’s not a shared past, for they’ve never met. So why does Tom start featuring in Lillie’s dreams of death and despair? The answers are far stranger than anyone could have expected, and they shatter everything Lillie ever thought she knew about life, love, and the way the universe works.
It turns out that Tom is from a parallel world, and he’s known Lillie through a number of lives, traveling from one world to the next, loving and losing her over and over. They’re intertwined in strange, inexplicable ways, apparently destined to meet time and again. But those dreams of death Lillie’s experiencing? Those are actually the memories of her other selves, systematically murdered by a ruthless predator likewise able to jump between worlds. Is she next?
As Lillie and Tom attempt to figure out just where they stand in relation to one another, Lillie learns more about Tom’s original world, the catastrophe which turned him and so many others into perpetual cosmic refugees, and her own role in his long life. Meanwhile, her friends are changing before her eyes, acting like strangers. In the end, she’ll be forced to make a choice: lose Tom, or lose her entire world. What’s Lillie willing to do for love?
There’s something inexplicably fascinating about this book, which exists somewhere in the murky area between paranormal romance and high concept science fiction. The basic conceit—people sliding from one world to the next, essentially replacing their counterparts in a never-ending journey—has its roots in a number of other works, reminiscent of television’s Sliders and E.C. Myer’s Fair Coin/Quantum Coin duology for instance, but with some additional twists that take it in provocative and tragic directions. There’s a lot I can’t discuss outright without delving into some heavy spoilers, but I was captivated by the internal mechanics of the idea and how they applied to Tom and Lillie’s bizarre relationship. (Although I raised an eyebrow at the insistence that there’s apparently no such thing as fiction or made-up stuff, that things like stories and dreams all originate as cross-dimensional flashes from parallel worlds in a truly infinite multiverse. Given some of the dreams I’ve had, I wouldn’t want there to be a world where they were real…what a strange, silly place that would be!)
As paranormal romances go, this one hits all the right marks. Tom’s the enigmatic bad boy with a heart of gold and a pained soul (and several hundred years of experience, despite his teenaged exterior). Lillie’s the ugly duckling, pining for love while forever in the shadow of prettier, more confident, more glamorous girls. Their relationship is inevitable, fraught with conflict, disapproved of by parental figures, and ultimately doomed…or is it? It’s slightly creepy when you consider that Tom’s known versions of Lillie dozens of times already, that they’ve even been married, and yet she’s meeting him for the first time ever…except when her memories claim otherwise. Jonach plays with the whole destined soul-mates trope and for the most part pulls it off. There are times where the characters seem to be together only because the plot demands it, not because of any true chemistry.
Some of the other characters come off as flat as well. Sylv isn’t just into guys, she’s obsessed with sex, dressing in provocative clothing even when it’s wholly inappropriate (she shows up to school in a white micro miniskirt and a sparkly red top whose plunging neckline shows off a black lace bra…she doesn’t just break the dress code, Lillie tells us, she annihilates it. Later, she stretches out on a bench, “underwear on full display,” encouraging boys to take a picture.) While there may indeed be teenage girls who go to these extremes, it feels out of place here, like Sylv’s escaped from some kind of ‘80s sex comedy. I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong—there are LOTS of discussions about that topic on every conceivable level—but it’s a strange element to introduce to a story involving cross-dimensional romance, parallel worlds, and interdimensional stalkers. Poor Jo doesn’t come off much better; she’s obsessed with her older, married teacher, and late in the book apparently makes a play for him that turns out poorly. (Though it leads to an interesting notion that while Lillie’s the heroine of her story, Jo and Sylv are the heroines of their own stories, and while she’s obsessed with Tom, they’re off doing their own things and leading their own lives. It's nice to get the feeling of secondary character autonomy, no matter how awkward their plotline might be.)
Jonach has a great story here, though it suffers from the above mentioned items, as well as a glaring juxtaposition between the romance and science fiction angles. It has many of the more common and less desirable paranormal romance tropes—the ones bordering on cliché—and a fair number of slow moments. Lillie’s also a passive character, letting things happen to her and having things explained to her, and like Sylv and Jo point out, she’s pretty bad at being a friend as well. It’s hard to feel for her, especially once she gives in to her despair near the end.
On the other hand, I was fascinated by the ideas Jonach introduced, and her take on the cross-world sliding. Some of it was a little clunky and confusing, even arbitrary, but there’s a lot of potential nonetheless.
Better than average science fiction story, middling paranormal romance, When the World was Flat (and We Were in Love) is ambitious yet flawed, a book best known for its unusually long and poetic name and its intriguing concept. This marks Jonach’s YA debut, and hopefully we’ll see more, and stronger, offerings from her in the future.
When the World Was Flat (and We Were in Love) is available now from Strange Chemistry.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.