25 June 2015

Books: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August By Claire North (2014)

The authors name on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is Claire North, but on the back flyleaf, we're told Claire North is a pseudonym. But since this novel was released well over a year ago, it's become public that Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated author whose first book, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was just 14 years old. She went on to write seven more successful young-adult novels, and also wrote a series of successful fantasy novels for adults under the pseudonym Kate Griffin, the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous novels. Of course that does not take away anything for me, as I've never read books under her real name or fake ones. And it does not take away anything about this book, which is by far one of the most cleverest takes on time travel I've read. 
We learn early that Harry August is an "ouroborans", a "kalachakra", a person who lives and dies and then is reborn, again and again. And each ouroborans remember their pervious life as well (at about four or five they begin to realize they have lived before), but Harry is an extra special kalachakra, for he is also a mnemonic, which means he retain nearly everything he's been exposed to through in his previous lives. So these people live sort of like a Groundhog's Day loop that starts at birth and continues through death -whenever that happens. They're like the Time Lords in Doctor Who, but without the actual time travel - because only information (and personal memories) can travel back through time.
We also meet other kalachakra's and discover a whole secret society, called the Cronus Club, of folks who've lived for thousands of years. And as Harry meets the same people (some who have minor changes in their lives, some with other major changes as they relive their lives), experiencing the same events, you realize this condition gives Harry and others almost godlike powers. And it doesn't take long for Harry to realize that -via a six year-old girl who visits Harry when he is dying in 1996 and tells him the future, her future and the worlds, is ending sooner than it should and that one their own, another ourborans, has decided that he does want to become a god and decides to change the past to alter the future. 
This sets Harry on an adventure of many lives to figure out whom is advancing science that will eventually erase all the kalachakra's from time and eventually the world. 
This is a well plotted, well thought out thriller and North does some wonderful worldbuilding here. It's a rare science fiction book of the 21st Century that comes out fully formed, with an igneous plot  that is familiar, yet not. Harry August is a likable hero, smart, funny, and tale works nearly to end. The plotting is addictive (she takes the short chapter approach made popular by James Patterson), yet it's done in such a way that I never felt exploited. I continued reading because North had created such a brilliant take on time travel, on the idea of the "what if everyone had a second chance to relive their lives (and remember it with great detail) and what they would do to change it on the second, third, or fourth time around?"
In many ways, as I read the book, I could not help but think of Doctor Who during it's early 1970s incarnation with the Doctor battling his archenemies (and fellow Time Lord) the Master, who was always trying to alter the present to effect the future. I'm not sure if North (or Webb) is actually a Who fan (and she was born in London during the shows wilderness years), but she is clearly inspired by it. 
It's a masterful book, and clever in so many ways. I'm shocked that it took me well over a year to discover it, and also shocked this book has not been a bigger hit. 

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