Review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

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I always find it fascinating how a cluster of books often appear on the bookshelves at the same time dealing with a similar subject. Not the slew of copycat wannabes who turn up trying to replicate a runaway best-seller no one saw coming – I’m talking about when the timing means that several authors were working on similar projects at the same time, often with completely different themes or approaches. I’ve been reading a steady trickle of excellently written books by established writers about this particular theme – that of a particular character living parallel or recurrent lives. And this is the latest addition.

first 15 lives of Harry AugustHarry August is on his deathbed again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always restarts to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a live he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes. Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next – and what he did before – and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

That’s the blurb and for my money – that’s one of the best blurbs I’ve read. Ever. Kudos to Orbit for that effort and the clever book cover – does the book measure up?

It’s certainly different to North’s other work. She writes the Young Adult Horatio Lyle series as Catherine Webb and her adult fantasy Midnight Mayor series under the name of Kate Griffin – you can read my review of her first book in the series A Madness of Angels here. This book is more literary in tone, relying less on breathless immediacy and more on measured exposition with a slower narrative pace. And there’s nothing wrong in that – but be aware that if you’re expecting the same full-tilt adventure-packed deal she offers in her other fiction, this is a more nuanced, considered book and while there is plenty of action, it is differently packaged.

As it happens, North is visiting a very familiar science fiction trope – that of the trans-human who has shifted into something different by dint of having lived so long. The big difference is that trans-humans as depicted by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Greg Bear owe their longevity to scientific development, while Harry August and the handful of other returnees he encounters during his lifetimes, owe their existence to a genetic quirk.  As a kalachakra, after he dies, he goes straight back to the year of his first birth – 1918 – and relives his existence, with the memories of his previous lives impacting on his choices and decisions. For my money, Harry August is the most effectively depicted post-human I have yet encountered. While never forgetting his difference, North has managed to still make him sufficiently sympathetic that I really empathised and cared about him – a feat, as he has become something other than fully human and is certainly not particularly cuddly or even likeable at lot of the time.

What we get is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be human and the effects of determinism – how far can Harry influence or alter the events in his lives – alongside the cracking adventure story that steadily evolves. North crafts this story with consummate skill and subtlety. The denouement is gripping and shocking and if this book isn’t shortlisted for every award going as one of the best science fiction books of the year, then she will have been robbed. Give it a go. It’s a masterpiece.
10/10

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