Book review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The extraordinary journey of one unforgettable character - a story of friendship and betrayal, loyalty and redemption, love and loneliness and the inevitable march of time.

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.


I have to be honest when I say that The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August escaped my attention at first! Yes I know... go stand in a corner... Last year I read some pretty cool Science Fiction titles of Orbit and one of them was Love Minus Eighty and since then I have been on the look out for a book to equal or top it. I am still milling in my mind about where to rank The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August but I can say that it is pretty high on my best science fiction books so far. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is written by Claire North but a quick google search will reveal that this is a pseudonym and not much else is known about her. Will we ever find out? This doesn't take away that this book is a very solid one with some pretty cool idea's that haven't featured in science fiction that often. I have to second the opinion on the back of the book. It's one of the most genre bending books of 2014 so far!

The story picks up in a most interesting way. The main protagonist Harry August lies on his deathbed again. Now such a sentence should really trigger a lot of questions for every reader... Lying on your deathbed again? Yes, because for a some people, a selected few, death isn't the end of the road. Instead they wake up and not in a new body but in the same and they get to relive their lives again and again WITH the memories that they gained in their earlier lives... Ok but let me get back to the beginning. On his eleventh deathbed, Harry August is confronted by a young girl who tells him that the world is about to end... This readily propels Harry into action to first figure out how the world will end and secondly how to save it. First let me repeat it again, how cool it this setting, you cannot die, you keep your memories and get to live your life over and over again I think you can also imagine something that you would like to do wouldn't you? However it is not all fun and games, by far. There are rules that apply... Else you can upset the whole balance of the world... 

After the short introduction with the young girl talking to Harry, Claire North introduces one of the best triggers a story can have. "Let us begin at the beginning" BAM! you know there will be a rich history when someone says that. Claire North did an excellent job in setting up the story in this way and I think that this was really what such a story needs. By setting up the story with the build up of Harry earlier years and lives gave a clear grip on not only Harry's story but also on many concepts that Claire North bring to life. It is by Harry's earlier years that you get to learn many details. Harry was born back in 1919 and his first life lasted until 1989 when he reached the Berlin Wall. His second life didn't last that long, as being yet unknown to his ability and yet unguided by the Cronus Club, Harry freaked out and didn't know how to go about being reborn in the same body with the exact frame of mind... For me this was a make of break kind of moment. I know it is still fiction and everything is allowed but when you focus a story closely on how we perceive life I like it when authors really invest time and effort in letting the main characters react in a human way. This adds several layers to the whole story in itself but also lets you relate better to the characters. After reading about his first two lives, Harry relates all that has happened in between before finally getting around his eleventh year and meeting the girl that warns him of imminent doom. In all his other lives Harry relates many events that have shaped and changed his character, for starters there was this guy, who he kills each and every life he lives, just so a few women can be safe. Plenty of more things happened in Harry's long life many happy and sad moments. Claire North clearly shows that The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is much more than an action-packed science fiction story it heavy on the emotional side of Harry's character and it is very interesting to see how he goes about his many lives and how he learns from all his past experiences.

The first thing that you learn is the biggest technical part about being reborn. No matter how you die, you are brought back to the point where you were first born, the same parents, same town, same everything. But like I already mentioned up top, you do come back into life with all your previous experiences. This is where it does get interesting. Because you can use what you learned previously for your gain in your new life. On which horses to bet, which companies to buy, you can really live the life of luxury and many of the kalachakra (those who are reborn) do this just so they won't have any problems on the money department. However there are also rules that apply. From a morally point of view, if you would be gives the chance to stop some of the atrocities like the rise of Hitler or other such events, wouldn't you try to stop it? It is however not allowed to change these events, the Cronus Club, made up of different kalachakra's from different times have set up bunch of rules that have to be lived by. No changing of events as this could alter many more events in the future think snowball effect, similarly it is also not allowed to introduce future science, i.e. the microwave for example in into the 1920 etc as again this could cause a ripple effect all throughout the course of history. For me the rules that Claire North explained early on really help fortify this story as it clearly showed that there were several restraints, and this kept a lot of the things in check. 

However there are always people who abuse power. But again if you were immortal wouldn't you want to have some fun? The Chronus Club has another set of rules, well more punishments, that they apply to those who break their rules and they aren't fun trust me. Harry meets up with one person who likes to bend the rules in his favor. Victor has begun breaking the rules by writing notes to scientists with future technology in the hope of advancing the general science level for his gain... that of gaining a sort of ascendancy... Victor has also cleverly eliminated the majority of the Cronus Club, the members might be immortal, but if you were never born... in the first place... yes pretty dark stuff (another rule, as an kalachakra never, ever reveal your birth year, place, date). Only Harry is left to stop Victor in his tracks and so far he has managed to keep his history secure... The last part of the book gives a very nice display the complexity of the relation between Harry and Victor. They both have a special ability, they cannot forget memories. Victor does try to do a forgetting once and thinks he succeeded but what he doesn't know is that Harry plays the game of ignorance and "keep your friends close but you enemies even closer". It's very gripping and intense and it's these kind of carefully executed stories with a very cool concept that will stay with you for a long while. 

With The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, the anonymous author Claire North (pseudonym of a well known author), creates a stunning and genre-defying entry in science fiction. I don't know if this is her first science fiction book but is good. It's solid. In short it's brilliant. From start to finish I was absorbed in the story. Claire North carefully plans her story from the initial setup with the trigger of "Let us begin at the beginning" wherein she explained all the previous events of Harry's lives and eventually the young girl that appears on his deathbed, which leaves only Harry to save the world from imminent doom, was plotted into the finest detail. Through all the experiences of Harry, you as a reader learn a lot of the rules that apply and again these are brought very casually and not as an information dump. Here the narration really helps as gradually you learn more and more, creating a very engaging storyline. Though the focus is really on Harry himself there are plenty of secondary characters, most of them kalachakra, that each stand out, the interplay between Harry and Victor was shown in a great way and even though Victor was the bad guy in this part, I did feel for him. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is much more than a simple time travel story. Clair North explores a lot of boundaries of human life; actions, morale, virtues and vices. I can safely say that this is another book that will make it on my best off 2014 list in December! What are you waiting for go. read. this. book. 

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