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Saturday, March 25, 2017

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Review

I finally finished The First Fifteenth Lives of Harry August by Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) and figured I would take a few moments to jot down my thoughts on it. Let’s break this down into three sections.

The shortest review:
Yep, I liked it. Check it out if you get a chance!

The not-quite-as-short review: For those of you who need things like plot details or specific reasons a reviewer liked things, fine, I guess I’ll elaborate. As you might have been able to guess from the title, the titular Harry August is a special individual born in 1919, one who, upon dying, finds himself back at the moment of his birth with all of his memories from the life that he just died in. He meanders through life (er, lives) trying to figure out what this means and what to do about it before finally meeting a mysterious club of similar individuals. And after discovering this secret society, he learns something even more shocking: the end of the world is accelerating. Something has affected the future, and is drawing the apocalypse closer and closer to the modern day. And with this, we have our hook for the plot.

In actuality, the book drops this last bit of info immediately with no context before backtracking to explain, so the proper investigation into what’s destroying the Earth faster and faster comes sufficiently later in the story. A lot of time is spent explaining the nature of Harry’s ability and what he does with his many lives, followed by setting up the world and history of the Chronus Club.

A quick search online tells me that not everyone is fond of this fact, but I actually liked it quite a bit. It sets a nice, leisurely pace that gives you all the details necessary to feel immersed in this intriguing society. No part of it feels extraneous, and despite covering a lot of ground, it actually moves rather quickly, like a brisk but winding trek through beautiful and unexplored territory.

And the layout, which bounces between lives in a more thematic rather than chronological way, keeps you on your toes. Despite all the overlapping lives to keep track of, it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get a feel for things, and North does a good job of knowing right when the reader will have everything under their thumb and can take new, large developments on for consideration.

It helps that Harry makes for an interesting narrator, something of a curious philosopher who is forced into frequent deep introspection due to his condition; he’s too different to fit in with the “linears” (those who experience time once, then die), especially those of his era, but more inquisitive and restless than his peers. He takes on a wider range of experiences in his many lives than most of them, which gives each life a distinct feel. This has the interesting effect of giving a story with a very minimal main cast the feel of a more sprawling story with a wider, more spread-out cast. And each one being many of the same characters in different situations makes it feel like a series of “What If” stories. I’m a big fan of both things.

About halfway through the book, once the conflict proper has been brought to the forefront, the story shifts into something more chronological and driving, something of a multi-generational, science-fiction “Count of Monte Cristo”-esque revenge tale where we get to see a methodical and cunning protagonist slowly lay down the pieces to a large plan, which I am once again all for in a narrative.

If this still all sounds good to you, then you should definitely give it a shot. If you want to read any more, though, stick around for part three…

The even-longer-still-but-still-short review, this part of which contains plot spoilers, so maybe hold off if you want to keep it all a surprise: Some other stuff that I want to discuss about the novel:

-There’s an interesting examination of technology and how it can bring out the worst in people, especially when left unchecked. Vincent, in his technological meddling, ends up hastening the end of the world with every new life. The Chronus Club discovers that this is erasing ouroborans/kalachakras/people who are reborn every time like them from history, effectively the only way to kill them. Upon discovering the reach of his actions, Vincent…decides to continue what he’s doing, as it’s more important than these lives. And this is even before he goes the extra mile to off anyone himself; this is just what he does through indifference.

Similar to the more dehumanizing uses of technology, sometimes selfishly using it to pursue your own ends unchecked at the price of direct harm to others that you are never in contact with in traditional means, just like on the internet with places like Twitter. And Claire North purposely decides to avoid showing them, in part because of the narrative’s restraints, but also because it shows just how easy it is to lose sight of the human on the other end.

- There is something interesting to be said for how close Harry and Vincent Rankis are. I was actually wondering for a while if Harry would go easy on him, or try and find some sort of compromise, especially after he surprised me by working with him the first time he initiated a confrontation. And the quantum mirror does seem like a compelling objective, especially for people with the prospect of unlimited time to work with (although not at the cost of life). And it is also interesting that Harry defeats him after Rankis gives him the purest form of connection he's had in a while, trust and total honesty on who he really is. It makes Harry’s final decision to end the cycle pretty brutal, actually.

-Another point of interest, to me at least, is Harry’s choices of “lives”. Of the top of my head, he pursued careers or education in medicine, physics, academia, languages, law, history, business, technology, espionage, theology, crime…but conspicuously absent is anything related to the arts. The closest he gets is writing for a tech publication, but he even leaves that field after using it to his ends sufficiently.

In fact, this appears to be the case for every ouroboran, although that may be mostly because our biggest insight comes from Harry and the very like-minded Vincent. But perhaps this to fit in with the Chronus Club’s preference to stay out of the public eye? Or, it may be something more metatextual; Catherine Webb mentioned that she had to make the character of Harry a man, partly because otherwise she would have spent too much time delving into the progression of women’s rights at the various eras the book takes place in. I wonder if the arts suffered similarly, as something she worried she would expound upon too much, to the point of dragging the pace to a halt? Either way, it’s a little strange to me in retrospect that, for a group that seems to spend so much time searching for meaning in their many lives that more don’t turn to some creative output to sort through their thoughts.

-There’s something interesting about Harry’s concern for linears, but I just can’t quite seem to completely voice it just yet. But he definitely seems to show more concern for them than the other ouroborans. He still makes an effort to reach out to his adoptive father Patrick and feels a slight connection to his childhood home; he seems to look fondly on his various life-companions (certainly more than Vincent does, at least, since he sees them more as stress release), and even if his relationship with them is more for cover than for actual love, tries to pick people he views as compatible and worthwhile people; even goes out of his way to look out for some of them in his following lives, like protecting his former lover Rosemary from her untimely demise in each subsequent life (albeit by murdering the linear responsible each time, although he even does sort of put Richard Lisle on “trial” before deciding that this is the only minimally-invasive solution). He still doesn’t quite seem to view them as equals, but he holds them in higher regard than his contemporaries, and I’m not sure it’s ever explained why, although I’m sure there’s a reason that will come to me if I reflect on it for long enough.

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