Sunday, 29 June 2014

Claire North: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

I’m beginning to feel like I’m on a time travel trip; between Edge of Tomorrow and X-Men: Days of Future Past and 11-22-63, an awful lot of my reading and movies in the last while has been different takes on going back in time and trying to change things. Of that whole spread, Edge of Tomorrow was the most satisfying; it’s fun, and the conceit held up throughout my time with it. Harry August is probably a better work of fiction, but perhaps because I was reading it at my own pace, the conceit started to crack about half way through. And so there I was enjoying the action but thinking that it didn’t even make sense in its own world

The gag in Harry August is that every now and then, someone is born who can remember being born before. Unlike all those tiresome people who remember a past life in which they were an Egyptian princes, Harry August’s kalachakra are people who keep being born into the same body again and again, starting out from the same place and trying to make a better life while the world around them stays more or less the same. It’s reincarnation meets the many worlds hypothesis meets video-game grinding, though Claire North is a good enough writer that it’s much better than I’ve just made it sound.

The headache, once you start to ponder it, is that kalachakra have a parallel society; all the reincarnations have figured out ways to stay in touch, passing messages and support up and down the generations by word of mouth and messages left on stones and other hiding places, each generation sending back word to the generation before of what to look for. In genre terms, they’ve created a society of benign vampires, a leisure class of immortals who live again and again in the same time, becoming ever more accomplished in each incarnation and ever more prosperous, before suffering the inevitable death and rebirth before starting again.

And North really sells it; the Cronus Club has a wonderfully lived-in feel to it. And yet. The more you think about it, the harder it is to make sense of it. The Kalachakra live every life differently; how can this not change the world around them until it alters out of all recognition? And while you can buy into the idea of one person living his life again and again, how can that sync up with dozens and hundreds of people doing the same thing? How can they all share the same sets of memories through all the resets?

This shouldn’t matter; the meat of the book is setting up Harry August, and then giving him an opponent, and then letting the war unfold. The only credible opponent for Harry is another Kalachakra, and the only credible war is for the future. And once that conflict kicks into gear, the book settles into a steady groove leading to a very satisfying pay-off.

What I find myself thinking now that I’ve had ten days to mull it over, is that the pacing is wrong. And that Harry August would have benefitted from being a longer book. The set up is as economical as it can be; we need time with Harry to see what he’s up to and how his world works. But that takes up nearly half the book, and doesn’t give us enough time in the central conflict. I don’t often argue for books to be longer, still less for trilogies, but this was one where more would have been better.

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