Author: Claire North (pseudonym for Catherine Webb)
Information on series: Stand alone
Read alikes: Replay, by Ken Grimwood; Life after life by Kate Atkinson; The impossible lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer; My real children by Jo Walton
Rating (scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the highest): 7.5
Tl;dr: A bit of a time travel tale mixed with a dose of Choose your own Adventure, this science-fiction/fantasy blend follows our protagonist Harry August as he navigates his life over and over again. Harry is a kalachakra, one who is reborn into the same life while retaining memories of past lives, and has recently received a message from the future: The world is ending, and Harry may be the only one who can stop it.
“When I am optimistic, I choose to believe that every life I lead, every choice I make, has consequence. That I am not one Harry August but many, a mind flicking from parallel life to parallel life, and that when I die, the world carries on without me, altered by my deeds, marked by my presence.”
Meet Harry August. Harry is a kalachakra, an ouroboran, one who is reincarnated time after time as the same person. He follows a parallel path through life, experiencing the same major events, only to die and do it all over again. How he chooses to live each life is up to him, and Harry wears many hats over the course of the book. Harry’s lives all begin the same: born in an English train station on New Year’s Day 1919 his mother dies in childbirth, taking with her the secret of his father’s identity. Harry is raised by a groundskeeper and his wife and during his third life is inducted into a secret society comprised of other kalachakra, known as the Cronus Club. Under the guidance of the Club, Harry is educated in the ways of the kalachakra: You cannot change major events, no murdering Hitler as a child or preventing JFK's assassination. A kalachakra may use their knowledge of sporting events or stock patterns and benefit financially from these endeavors, though they must bequeath a good portion of their profits to the Club for future generations. Club members can pass information along to future or past kalachakra, either by finding an elderly ouroboran about to pass away and verbally giving them a message to carry back in time, or by carving a note in stone to be read by kalachakra to come. It is in this first manner that Harry receives a chilling message on the death bed of his eleventh life; the world is ending, faster and more violently with each reincarnation, and it is up to him to find out why. Throughout his next four lives Harry sets out to determine the cause of the world's demise, a task that carries him around the globe, across the paths of past friends, enemies, and lovers, and delves deep into questions of philosophy, morality, mortality, hard science, and religion. As the culprit of the world's end is made known the book shifts from an exploration of Harry's lives on an emotional and metaphysical level to a discussion of scientific and technological advancements and their role in humanity.
Conceptually, I thought this book was fantastic. While it is certainly not the first novel to play with timelines I felt the way the author handled reincarnation (being born again as the same person with prior lives' memories intact) was refreshing. Harry's first person narration is nonlinear as the plot jumps from life to life, often without preamble, which may be disconcerting to some readers. The pacing is also erratic, alternating between frustratingly stagnant to page-turning, which lowered my overall enjoyment. There were also times where the scientific concepts were above my own (extremely limited) grasp of quantum physics, though if that's a fault of the book or my knowledge I cannot say.
Overall I found The first fifteen lives of Harry August to be quite a delightful read.