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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - Claire North

It is hard to rate a book that is well-crafted but which I actively disliked. I’ll call it middle of the road; clearly it works for many readers. There are partial SPOILERS below.

This is basically a time travel book. Harry August is one of a small group of people who are reborn over and over again, with full memories of their past lives. Harry spends many lives confused and trying to learn about his place in the world, before he learns that one of his fellows is introducing technology before its time and sets out on a mission – naturally, spanning multiple lives – to stop him.

North (aka Kate Griffin) is good at her work; certainly the writing is compelling and her use of language above average for the genre. The book is strongly and successfully plot-driven, with a lot of short chapters that make you want to keep reading. If you are looking for a well-written time travel thriller, this is your book.

It was not my book, however, for two main reasons.

First, all the protagonists are fundamentally inhuman, and I found this surprisingly unsettling. They live their lives over and over, with little regard for human life – either their own or others’. Indeed, the characters’ whole attitude toward other people is cold at best. None of the repeaters seem to use their opportunity to start over to mend or enhance relationships with loved ones; though born to regular families, none seem to have loved ones in any true sense. There’s a woman we’re meant to believe is the love of Harry’s many lives, but that’s hard to swallow, because after their relationship goes sour on the first try, he never even considers trying again; he only ever mentions her a couple of times afterward. The lack of human connection, along with the manipulation, the apathy, and lots of death, resulted in a book that disturbed me in ways I can’t fully explain.

Second, this book comes with all the plot holes and dogma found in every other time travel book. By dogma, I mean the idea that somehow the world had to be the way it happened to turn out in real life, and trying to change it is morally wrong. I find this incredibly boring, particularly in a genre that’s supposed to specialize in exploring “what if?” Why can’t someone kill Hitler? Because you can’t change the past. But in science fiction, you can, so why not? I don’t know, because for some reason sci-fi authors are scared to try. I am much more interested in pondering what would happen if someone killed Hitler, what the world might be like if time travelers were available to warn us in advance of impending disaster, than I am in a plot about stopping technological change from occurring. The reason for this imperative is weak; apparently it hastens the end of the world (though the world just restarts anew every time, so that doesn’t seem to matter much). But if technological development hastens the end of the world, perhaps time travelers’ mission should be to destroy all new technology? But readers would have a hard time supporting that, and anyway, for some reason in these types of books the status quo is God – you can’t improve the world, only stop others from making it worse. Boring.

Then there are the plot holes. The biggest one is this: the repeaters are devoted to maintaining the status quo because if things change enough that future repeaters aren’t born, then those repeaters are dead for good. But their commitment to the status quo seems to apply only to global, historic changes. These people live completely different lives every time – having different influential careers, on different continents, marrying people who in other lives marry and have children with others (though not specifically stated, the repeaters are apparently sterile), murdering people who in other lives go on to murder others. Surely this too would impact the world, possibly preventing future repeaters' births, yet somehow no one cares. And then too, Harry’s plot to thwart the tech whiz unfolds over several lives, in each of which massive changes occur – so by this point, wouldn’t most of the repeaters be dead anyway, and wouldn’t new ones have been born? Should he not now devote himself to maintaining the new status quo? But it’s hard to tell how seriously we should take Harry’s quest anyway; early on we’re told he’s preventing the end of the world, but late in the book his staunchest ally refuses to weigh in on a strategic decision (“This is your crusade, Harry, not mine”) – if the fate of the world indeed hangs in the balance, shouldn’t it be important to more than one person?

I could go on, but those are the biggest issues. Again, if you love time travel thrillers, you’ll be used to all of this and will probably enjoy this book. As for me, though, I definitely prefer Life After Life. If nothing else, that is a book about real human beings.