The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Published: Orbit/Redhook 2014
Awards Won: Campbelll Memorial Award
Awards Nominated: BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Awards
“Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.
Until now. As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you, Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.' This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.” ~WWend.com
This is the first book I’ve read by Claire North, and I picked it up because of its award nominations and Campbell award win. It turns out that I really love time-looping novels.
This is the second novel about time-looping lives that I have read, with the first being Ken Grimwood’s Replay. While the two books share a similar premise (and are both excellent), they are also very different in execution. Grimwood’s novel was more about the personal growth and self-realization that comes with repeating one’s life in many variations. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, on the other hand, is more like a spy novel that plays out between two characters over multiple lives. The established mechanics behind how being a ‘kalachakra’ (life-looper) works play a major role in the story, and the internal consistency gives you a framework to try to figure out how the conflict will eventually be concluded.
The most exciting part of the story revolved around the sometimes friendly and sometimes adversarial relationship between two kalachakra, Harry and Vincent. Both of them are capable of playing a long game, spending multiple lives maneuvering themselves into position to achieve their ultimate goals. It was really thrilling to read about their interactions, as they both maintained careful facades and planned their betrayals. Behind Harry lies the support of the Cronus Club, a kalachakra organization that believes in the preservation of the timeline. Vincent, on the other hand, is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything (even the future) to get what he wants. The stakes are high, and the ending sticks in my mind as one of the most thrilling I’ve read in quite some time.
Outside this conflict, there’s also a lot of time devoted to fleshing out the world and the way the kalachakra interact with it. I enjoyed the speculation on what people might choose to do if they know they will repeat their lives over and over. Some people seek out dissipation or violence, while others (like Harry) pursue different avenues of learning or expertise. Over time, some kalachakra even have so many regrets that they seek memory erasure as a way of starting anew. It was interesting to see how the variations in these people’s lives sent small ripples through the spheres in which they lived. I really loved the setup of this world, both for the exploration of human nature it allows and as a way to set up a delightfully twisty plot.
My Rating: 4.5/5
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an exciting spy-novel-esque story about a group of people whose lives loop repeatedly. I loved the mechanics behind how this life-looping functioned, and seeing what a variety of people might choose to do within the endless repetition. I found the tension between Harry and the antagonist, Vincent, to be very compelling, and I eagerly followed their attempts to out-maneuver each other. I am interested to see what else Claire North (a.k.a. Catherine Webb) has written and will write in the future.
A side note...One implication of the setting that was not addressed, but which I thought was really cool, was about the incidence of becoming a kalachakra. The looping nature of their lives implies that all humans loop repeatedly, but they simply don’t remember between one life to the next. Since new kalachakra occasionally arise, it seems that it is an enlightened state that, given enough time, all people might eventually reach. If there is ever another novel set in this world, it would be fascinating to see what happens to the timeline when eventually most or all of the people can remember from life to life.