Thursday, August 06, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Claire North is the pseudonym of Catherine Webb, who although she is only 28 years old is already the author of sixteen(!) published novels, including two science fiction novels as Claire North: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August in 2014 and Touch in 2015. The former won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2014, beating out other higher profile books such as The Martian by Andy Weir (probably the best-selling science fiction book of 2014 and soon to be a major motion picture starring Matt Damon), Lock In by John Scalzi, The Peripheral by William Gibson, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (winner of the 2015 Nebula award) and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (winner of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award).

I can see why The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is considered one of the best works of speculative fiction published in 2014. The premise of the book is that when certain people die they live their life over again is a great one. In fact it is so good it has been used before, notably in Ken Grimwood's Replay (which won the 1988 World Fantasy Award.) I had forgotten about Replay but I do remember that although I loved the timeloop concept Grimwood's book seemed a bit dated. There's no question this would make a great movie. In Replay, the main character's time loop starts at age 18, and the loops get shorter and shorter as the story progresses. In Harry August, the time loops go back to birth, but awareness of all one's past lives does not occur until age 5 or 6.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August takes Grimwood's time loop premise and improves it in several, specific ways. First off, there is an organization of ouroborans (i.e. individuals like Harry who relive their lives after "dying" and are also known as kalachakras) called the Cronus Club whom Harry pretty quickly comes into contact with and serves as a support network for creatures like himself. Secondly, North introduces a thriller element to the story by including a megalomaniacal kalachakra who is apparently discovering the birth dates of fellow kalachakras and eliminating them before they can recover their memories or defend themselves. Unsurprisingly, most kalachakras tend to avoid others of their kind (and have low profiles in general), but Harry meets another kalachakra named Vincent Rankis who becomes a frenemy of sorts. The third aspect of the book which raises it to the upper echelon of speculative fiction is the way in which it deals with various aspects of time travel. Basically, kalachakra's repeatedly experience the same time period as they repeat their lives, so they have a limited foreknowledge of the future. By interacting with other kalachakras whose lifetime overlaps with theirs, but whose birth occurs later a kalachakra can obtain information about the far future. This is what happens when a very young girl comes to Harry towards the end of one of his lives and says "the world is ending." In fact, soon it becomes clear that the end of the world is coming about earlier in the future and as Harry continues to live his life (from about 1919 through to about 2010) he notices other changes, like technological advances starting to occur earlier and earlier.
He is pretty sure that Vincent Rankis is involved in making these changes because in addition to being a kalachakra, Rankis (like Harry) has an eidetic memory: he remembers everything that happens to him, in every life. The reader is faced with the question of what you would do if you discovered you were a kalachakra and could live your life over again and again knowing what events would be occurring

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August ends up being a power struggle between Victor and Harry; the reader is exposed to Harry's thoughts and feelings so we are predisposed to be on Harry's side. (He has a wry wit.) In addition, Victor turns out to have a complete disregard for life, both human and ouroboran alike. He creates a device which when applied to a kalachakra, wipes their memory so that even when they are reborn, they are no longer able to access their memories of their past lives, essentially killing them.

Overall, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a compelling, well-written, very entertaining work of speculative fiction which packs an emotional wallop while it amuses, thrills and challenges the reader.

Title: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
Claire North.
Paperback: 416 pages.
Date Published: April 8, 2014.
Date Read: April 30, 2015.

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.583/4.0).


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