The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

(9.4/10) I recommend it to anyone looking for a great fusion between literary and sci-fi concepts.

Book of the Year 2014 (see all)

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a stand-alone historical sci-fi novel written by Claire North (AKA Kate Griffin and Catherine Webb) about a man who lives his life, dies, and is then reborn in the same body to live his life all over again. This was a fantastic story, one that deals with complex elements such as time and passing messages through time, while presenting them in a literary fashion. Think of this story as a literary extrapolation of Groundhog Day, or a slower alien-free version of All You Need Is Kill / Edge of Tomorrow.

The story follows Harry August, a man who is born in 1919, lives through numerous big events throughout history, and then usually dies around 1990 due to lung disease (unless he dies through misadventure first). Harry is a Kalachakra, an Ouroboron, a man who is destined to be reborn again and again. He is not the only one, there are many Kalachakra and through their secret society called the Cronus Club they try to ensure that the timeline is preserved so that the end of the world is prevented. But messages are being sent back in time from far future generations of Kalachakra - the world is coming to an end earlier and earlier, and Harry needs to figure out whether or not he should try to stop it.

The first thing I want to say is that Claire North must have some sort of history degree and meticulous planning skills, because the way she was able to explore so many key events over hundreds of years, and demonstrate the influence of the Kalachakra over their multiple lives still boggles my mind. Through Harry August and other Kalachakra, North was able to change seemingly insignificant events and show how the effects propagate through the time stream. She explores what might happen if technology was developed earlier, and how this would impact science a hundred years later. She explores what might happen if a vicious ruler was assassinated before they could wreak their havoc on the world. Cause and effect is so meticulously planned, and I found the results to be fascinating.

Another great thing North does is explore what it means to be human when you can essentially live your life consequence free. Harry goes through a phase in his life where it is sex, drugs, and hangovers in exotic locations all over the world, and it leaves him wanting to make more out of his life. North then poses the question about whether anything the characters do in her book actually matters, given that every time they die the reset button is pushed and all their achievements are forgotten. The sense of morality is warped by their circumstances, and Harry is often left wondering how his deliberate acts of vengeance and murder impact his soul. We will never experience life the same way the fictional Kalachakra, but it is still an excellent case study to explore.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a slow story told sporadically by a man trying to remember all the important things that happened in his 15 previous lives that gradually weaves in and out of Harry's various lives giving you layers of context before accelerating towards a satisfying climax. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and recommend it to anyone looking for a great fusion between literary and sci-fi concepts.

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