The premise of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is so interesting that I doubt this review will spare anyone a reading day. Other people have been over the moon for this book and if you’d like to read the thing for yourself, I understand. I read plenty of bad reviews and STILL wanted the treat of North’s awesome premise.
The Awesome Premise
“It says…” he replied, letting out a huff of breath with the weary resignation of the regular storyteller. “It says that there are people, living among us, who do not die. It says that they are born, and they live, and they die and they live again, the same life, a thousand times. And these people, being as they are infinitely old and infinitely wise, get together sometimes—no one really knows where—and have… Well, it depends on which text you’re reading what they have. Some say conspiratorial meetings in white robes, others go for orgies at which the next generation of their kin are created. I don’t believe in either, because the Klan has really dented the white-robe fashion down South, and orgies are everyone’s first bet.” (39)
Harry August is one such person (a kalachakra, or ouroboran) who lives and dies on a loop. Each of his lives begins in the same way: once his memories reboot, he leaves his childhood home for a world he has already experienced. Though each life is different than the last, Harry’s eidetic (photographic) memory creates the impression of one long, repetitive life: “I remember everything, and sometimes with that intensity when it is not so much recollection as reliving.” (42)
Kalachakra can communicate back and forth through time. For example, someone whose lifespan runs 1600-1650 can leave clues for future kalachakra to decipher; the notes can be different in each life to form half of a slow dialogue. To communicate back through time, one kalachakra (as a child) will seek out another who is near death to relay a message during the brief window their lifespans overlap. Eventually, word reaches back to Harry’s generation that something is changing: the end of the world is coming sooner and sooner: “The end of the world is speeding up—it is happening earlier in every life. That implies that the cause is changing, and what, we must ask, is the cause of change.” (125) This sends Harry on a bizarre chase to find out who is speeding up the apocalypse, and why.
Why It Sucks
1) I’d get into plot holes, but I’m spoiler averse. The short version is that the kalachakra plot breaks down upon close inspection. If cleverly implemented, paradoxes can be fun, but this book feels sloppy instead.
2) Kalachakra have a no interference policy (e.g. no one kills Hitler) so they don’t accidentally negate each others lifespans, but they all act differently in each life: sometimes Harry kills a serial killer, sometimes not; they take a variety of spouses; they travel to different parts of the world at different times; a number serve repeatedly in wars (sometimes living, sometimes stacking the deck)… It’s okay to change little things, not big ones, but who determines this line and how? (These people need a visit from the Doctor NOW to get a lesson on fixed points. Now that I think of it, this book could have been saved by a conversion to Doctor Who fanfiction in the final chapters.)
3) Death is simultaneously a large and small consequence for kalachakra, but North can’t have this both ways when building “hero in danger!” or “time is short!” sequences. Because it takes Harry so long to relive a portion of his life and reestablish his mission, you’d think he’d be less cavalier about death if for no other reason than the inconvenience.
4) Over-reliance on torture. If someone wants to know something from a kalachakra, they’ll torture it out. These scenes are over the top and sickening. Surely kalachakra, with all their resources, don’t need pliers to tease out information. Typically, the only way out of one of these situations is suicide.
5) Harry is super boring. Everything he does must be connected to the times he did it in previous lives:
The crossword in the back frustrated me—I had answered nearly every clue three lives ago, when I attempted this same crossword during a break from the Europe desk at the Foreign Office, and three lives ago I had been stumped by the very same clue which now I could not penetrate: “Hark-a twist in the road, I perceive”, eight letters and, I was infuriated to find, as impossible now as it had been those centuries before. Maybe, for one life only, I could be the man who wrote to the newspapers to complain. (196)
His eidetic memory, a trait he shares with the villain, minimizes the weight of time. It doesn’t feel like centuries are passing since the normal markers of time are on a loop. Plus, if Harry didn’t have a perfect memory, it would lend urgency to his work because he wouldn’t have the mental resources of 15 men (experience as a doctor, a scientist, etc.) along with an impressive quantity of languages picked up one lifetime at a time. The end of the book verges on a spy thriller as Harry slips around the world to track the villain with a carpetbag of tricks. Also, in terms of pacing, there are too many moments like the crossword bit above. North is constantly side-tracked by irrelevant memories.
6) That a kalachakra can permanently die is… odd. The way it happens is odder still and opens the way for more inconsistencies and a cheapened ending. Perma-death means a kalachakra will never be reborn again, but this isn’t something that happens to any of the “linears” as the regular folks are called. As Harry wrestles with the chore of taking out a serial killer each life, this momentous thing becomes tedious. I like the idea that something heavy degrades into triviality over time. If Harry knew permanent death was impossible and that he would have to confront/kill the villain each life, that would be an interesting (and terrifying) cost. The dryness of repetition is otherwise well expressed in this book. It’s also possible for a kalachakra to delete their memory, to reset, but this is also poorly handled.
7) The only interesting portion is when Harry is “friends” with the villain. I’m disappointed that North went for the common ending. And no, this isn’t a spoiler. As soon as the villain is introduced, you know who’s speeding up the apocalypse (just not how or why—that’s the mystery the book explores).
8) COINCIDENCES ARE NOT A VALID PLOT DEVICE WHEN USED TOO FREQUENTLY. Le sigh.
I feel like it bears mentioning, just so that no one corrects me for not mentioning it: Claire North is a pseudonym for a successful writer. So it’s not like she isn’t good at her craft. Many passages are well-written and the overall concept is stellar. But the execution? What a load.
Overall: 1.5 (out of 5)
Translation: Think twice before reading. You’re not a kalachakra (probably). Reading time is finite and precious.