By Claire North
Redhook, an imprint of Orbit/Hatchett
Paperback, 432 pages. © 2014
Harry August is dying for the eleventh time. Every life, he’s reborn in the same year, at the same place, by the same mother, with all his prior memories intact. No matter how he lives his life, world events unfold around him in the exact same way. But this time, a young girl visits his bedside and asks him to take a message with him. Back through time. And everything begins to change.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a brilliant twist on the time-travel trope, set in what becomes an alternative historical setting, with multiple speculative elements, all blended in literary style. Harry is the only point-of-view character, so that we experience everything through his senses. And what an experience it is! Author Claire North twists the tension from the very start, first with small clues and upsets which build along with the story until the last few chapters where I was exclaiming expletives aloud to the room at large as I went. I think if my flat had been on fire, I’d have taken the book with me to read while we awaited the fire trucks.
Through the course of his lives, Harry becomes an accomplished liar, protecting himself and his identity not just from linears (people who don’t remember their prior lives) but from others among the Kalachakra (those who do remember) as well. He is a master of deceit, posing as reporter, scientist, professor, doctor, groundskeeper, and whatever role is necessary. Hundreds of years of life and a multitude of cultural exposures have graced Harry with a keen intellect, shrewd ingenuity, an ability to think on his feet, and a multi-layered personality that takes some peeling to see down to the core. Throughout the story, Harry is driven to do the right thing, the necessary thing, and he’s willing to take huge risks in that pursuit. I liked him from the start.
Other characters that float through Harry’s lives bring spice to the story. Even though they are, for all intents and purposes, immortal and face different challenges than we linears do, I had no problem relating to these long-lived beings. They still feel pain. They still face death (even though they know they’ll be back). They still strive to fulfill dreams, and they still face the consequences of their actions. Turns out Kalachakra are much like linears in some ways. Most stick to the rules, even if a few do dance on the edge. But it’s the ones who defy the rules that threaten it for everyone. Here’s one area where North’s genius really shines—even the bad guys are relatable. You can’t not like them. I tried.
Because Harry’s story is set in a recognizable world (England, 1919), with known historical events filling the backdrop all along the way (even coming center stage), North’s worldbuilding focused more on the reality of the Kalachakra, how they differed from linears. She did such a fabulous job of this it would almost be easy to believe people like Harry exist. The narrative is rich, complex, the plot so delightfully intricate that you could not pull on one thread of the story without affecting the whole. Every facet of this jewel lends depth and meaning, with foreshadowing on every single layer. North’s words are skillfully chosen to lead her reader exactly where she wants them to go, while we merrily follow along and love every minute.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read. My only disappointment with the story was that it ended. When I turned the last page, even though I knew the story was concluded, I hoped for more Harry. His story has lingered in my mind like a wonderful, intriguing fragrance, wafting through my thoughts at the most unexpected times.
Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who finished her first novel (Mirror Dreams, published in 2002 to high acclaim) at the age of 14. Thus far, she has published twenty-six books, won multiple prestigious awards, been shortlisted for still more awards, received two separate Carnegie nominations, and the list goes on. Harry’s story is my first experience with a Claire North/Catherine Webb book. But if The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke award) is a good example of her work—and with all those awards to her name, I’m betting it is—I promise you this: it will not be the last.