The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received an eARC of this book through Net Galley. I was not compensated for my review.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a book about time travel. Sort of. The title character lives the same period of time, again and again, always with his memory of the last time he went through it. He knows what the future will hold, as far as he lived the last time. Then he learns of an organization called the Cronus Club, full of other people who are effectively immortal. He can find out more about the future through members who lived past his lifespan. And he does. He finds out, at the end of his eleventh life, that the end of the world is coming, and something is hastening it with each iteration of time the Cronus Club members (called kalachakras or ourobourans) live through.
In one life, he teaches at a university, and has several philosophical conversations with a young man named Vincent. He learns, quite by accident, that Vincent is like him, living the same timeline again and again. But, while the Cronus Club wants to keep things the same, Vincent wants to change the world. The last time a kalachakra brought his future knowledge into the world, he nearly brought the world to a premature end, and lots of ourobourans were never born. Incidentally, never being born is the only way to kill one of their kind. So Harry immediately has a candidate for who he has to stop to save the future. Only Vincent has a lot more resources than Harry, and he seems to be always a step ahead.
The time travel aspects are believably complex. The entire concept seems to have been thought out very well. As useful as it seems, it has its limitations, and its pitfalls. As startling as the notion of killing oneself to preserve oneself seems the first time it comes up, it becomes an easy concept to wrap one's mind around as the story goes on.
The concept does drag the book down a bit in places, though. Harry is a curious sort of person, so he likes to examine the questions brought out by his existence. He pursues learning, and the narrative is sometimes bogged down by the knowledge he integrates. I felt like his third life, where he seeks meaning, could've been trimmed significantly from the narrative without taking anything away.
The book also suffers from tokenism and orientalism. Harry seeks meaning in the Far East, of course, and encounters a very polite authority figure who wants to know if he's a spy. In one life, he marries an Asian woman so she can manage his sometimes-shady business matters, and she serves as a caricature of Asian competence. There's one black character in the entire book, and she's there for Harry to have a sexual relationship with another kalachakra and to experiment heavily with drugs with. Sigh.
Overall, I found this book to have a slow build, with a satisfying conclusion. The narrative sets up Harry's intelligence then relies on his wits to solve it. There's an aspect of the bittersweet to the ending, but I was happy with it.
If you pick this book up, don't go in expecting a fluffy summer read. The book is far denser than the description makes it sound. I went in expecting a quick read, which was like running headlong into a brick wall. Adjust your expectations, let the book make you curious about the questions it raises, and you'll do just fine.
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