Author: Claire North

Publisher: Redhook (April 8, 2014)


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of the few novels that transcends the genre of science-fiction. Its premise is that there are humans called the kalachakra who are born with the gift of reincarnation, and that each member of this community not only is reborn again and again, but that they retain their memories of their past lives. This gives the author many opportunities to explore philosophical questions such as what is the meaning of personal and social responsibility when you have the knowledge of the future but are ethically bound not to intervene? Or are you? How can you value human life when you know death, for most, is inevitable and nothing can alter that reality? How do you avoid complacency when you have the comfort of dying and returning without consequence? If you know the "big picture" of history, how can you care about the small matters of lovers and doomed family members?

In this case, the time-traveler narrator is Harry August who repeats his life fifteen times with the unique gift of forgetting nothing he learns. As a result, with each life he has the opportunity to become expert in archeology, languages, religion, espionage, crime, and especially science. He meets others of his kind in the Cronos Club who both mentor younger Kalachakra and send messages to each other through the centuries with warnings of unexpected changes coming in the future. Harry comes to learn he's reluctantly involved in the accelerated technological advances that could lead to the premature end of the world.

While the novel has only one voice, it's extremely multi-layered as Harry reveals the lessons he learns life after life from humans and fellow time-travelers alike. He alternates between his memories as he shows how he relives his own past over and over, how he adapts to his abilities, how he comes to question the apathetic and secretive Chronos Club, and how he takes on the quest of stopping the one man consumed with finding the ultimate meaning of life at all costs.

What elevates this novel above many others is the intelligence in the dialogue and content. It's no mean feat to capture characters hundreds of years old and give them the depth of people you'd expect would have centuries of accumulated knowledge. Many of their conversations are full of pithy observations in debates worthy of a high-caliber philosophical society. To demonstrate August's adept mind, the author gives him a superb literary gift of vivid metaphors and the ability to sketch detailed descriptions of people and places. In addition, North knows his or her science (Claire North is a pseudonym) which allows for intense discussions on theoretical physics and how they might lead to the ultimate "God machine," the "Quantum Mirror."

Making the story very readable are the many chapters of international action-adventure like escapes from high-security institutions, threats from scientists wanting to use August's mind to obtain their own ends, and the undercover hunts August must pursue literally life after life. In short, The Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of the best novels so far in 2014, and is likely to remain on many a "best of" list for some time to come. Highly, highly recommended.

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