Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
Werthead

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

21 posts in this topic

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry August has a pretty ordinary life. He is born in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1919 and dies in a hospital in Newcastle in 1989. In the meantime he has different jobs, various relationships and tries to move on from his difficult family life. But when he dies he finds himself as a child again, regaining his memories of his prior life. This happens again. And again.

Harry is an Ouroboran, destined to live his life again and again. He is one of hundreds, and through the overlapping lifespans of Ouroborans it is possible to send and receive messages from the distant past and distant future. But, in Harry's eleventh life, the messages from the future start changing: the world is ending, and it is accelerating. When Harry's fellow Ouroborans start permanently dying (by someone assassinating their parents before they conceived) or having their memories wiped, and amazing technology appears decades early, he realises that one of their number has betrayed them and is using their power for their own ends, with destructive consequences for humanity.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was released in 2014 and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, as well as being nominated for the Arthur C. Clark Award. It gained surprising widespread prominence after being featured on the UK's biggest TV book show. It is written by Catherine Webb under the pseudonym Claire North, which she uses to explore protagonists with unusual abilities (The Sudden Appearance of Hope is in a similar vein).

Webb is a constantly intriguing and interesting author, shifting genres and prose styles with enviable ease as she explores different ideas and characters. At her best, she comes across as a restless, far more prolific and slightly less repetitive (but also somewhat more wordy) Christopher Priest, with her books dwelling on themes such as identity and motivation amongst shifting realities and points of view.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August may be her finest novel to date. The central premise is incredibly strong and it deals with the existential questions surrounding the idea in surprising depth and with logic. Questions are raised such as if the Ouroborans are living in the same world, changing it each time they live through it, or if they are skipping from one timeline to another, and the moral consequences of that for the timelines they leave behind upon death. The overlapping lifespans of different Ouroborans allow them to bring back knowledge from the distant future (since an Ouroboran born in say 1984 dies in the late 21st Century, is reborn, reveals that information to another one who was born in 1925, who can pass it back in their next life etc) and this raises moral quandaries about if they should hoard their knowledge or try to improve humanity's lot.

This latter question consumes much of the novel, especially when it becomes clear that trying to change things often results in far worse consequences. But the dry time travel shenanigans are contrasted against Harry's characterisation, especially the trauma he carries from his first life and his intriguing relationship with a sometimes-nemesis Vincent. The path of the Ouroboran can be a lonely, frustrating one and Harry's dislike of Vincent for his relaxed morality is tempered with respect for his intelligence and just the company of a fellow travel on a journey through their looping lives. This relationship forms the core of the novel and is developed with relish by the author.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (*****) is a smart and thoughtful reflection on life, love, loss, identity, science and the end of the world. It is available now in the UK and USA

.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, Werthead said:

Webb is a constantly intriguing and interesting author, shifting genres and prose styles with enviable ease as she explores different ideas and characters. At her best, she comes across as a restless, far more prolific and slightly less repetitive (but also somewhat more wordy) Christopher Priest, with her books dwelling on themes such as identity and motivation amongst shifting realities and points of view.

It made me think of Tim Powers' work as well, a story in a historical setting where a small group of people have a particular supernatural ability.

In terms of plot the most obvious comparison is Ken Grimwood's Replay, which is probably the classic example of the life lived over and over again trope, at times Harry August does explore some similar material, but I thought the addition of people from different time periods who can send messages backwards and forward was an interesting twist.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I absolutely love the way the book opened, and how it gets back to that point.

Quote

I am writing this for you.
    My enemy.
    My friend.
    You know, already, you must know.
    You have lost.

Just an amazing intro.

 

5 hours ago, williamjm said:

In terms of plot the most obvious comparison is Ken Grimwood's Replay, which is probably the classic example of the life lived over and over again trope, at times Harry August does explore some similar material, but I thought the addition of people from different time periods who can send messages backwards and forward was an interesting twist.

I would have loved for Harry to have read Replay and found that Grimwood was an Ouroboran in one of his lifetimes, just as a nod.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I love this book, I've read and reread it three times now and it's just as much fun each time.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Definitely my fav Claire North book. It was great. I have never read her books under different names. Are they very different?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, unJon said:

Definitely my fav Claire North book. It was great. I have never read her books under different names. Are they very different?

Her Catherine Webb books are YA and a bit less heavy-going. Her Kate Griffin books are urban fantasy, but very, very different to the norm, notably written in a much more original prose style. I've only read the first one and it was absolutely superb. I need to get back to that series (the Matthew Swift  series, which is complete, with four main books and two spin-off novels).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Werthead said:

Her Catherine Webb books are YA and a bit less heavy-going. Her Kate Griffin books are urban fantasy, but very, very different to the norm, notably written in a much more original prose style. I've only read the first one and it was absolutely superb. I need to get back to that series (the Matthew Swift  series, which is complete, with four main books and two spin-off novels).


It's not really 'complete' so much as stopped. Not that it's uncomplete either- just that unlike most urban fantasy these days there wasn't a real long plot arc. She could definitely come back to it with no issues or awkwardness, and I don't think she's ever said she's finished with it has she?

You defo need to get back to it though, either way.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I loved Replay and much of Tim Powers (especially Dinner at Deviant's Palace, Anubis Gates, and Last Call). I liked but didn't love Harry, mostly because of the antagonist. I did love North's "Touch" and I thought the first Matthew Swift was very clever but emotionally didn't grip me.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This thread was overdue.  I enjoyed First 15... a lot.  Definitely reminiscent of Tim Powers, and perhaps even the Milkweed trilogy.   

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I was so interested in the concept based on Wert's review that I stopped what I was reading and started this. Tore through it in four days, and wasn't remotely disappointed. I thought it was incredible, the best book I've read in a long time. I'd braced myself that the time-travel elements might be the b story, playing second fiddle to a different plot but it was so satisfying how much depth there was about how the ouroborans worked and how the world might look if such a thing were possible.

A few things for those that have read it...

Spoiler

One thing that occurred to me that the book didn't go in to......Harry is on his first fifteen lives, while other ouroborans have had far more. Which means that for the first few lives of these 'older' ones, they would have been able to visit Harry before he became one. So there are a potentially infinite number of Harry's lives stretching back to however many lives ouroborans can have, each potentially different if this ouroboran chose to mess with the course of his life in some way. The difference with these fifteen is that he remembers them. And so 'linears' should more accurately be called 'potential ouroborans', as all new ouroborans would have still existed before hand from the POV of those already in existence. I guess it doesn't matter to the plot, but it was implied that the general moral consensus of the Cronus Club was that it didn't really matter what happened to linears as long as the timeline stayed roughly the same.

Was anyone else a bit disturbed by the treatment of Victor Hoeness? That's some of the most brutal torture I've ever read about, and it turned out that, by the end, they just killed him anyway?! As in, pre-birth assassination? How on Earth the club evolved to be OK with this seemed completely out of place, and moreover, unnecessary. Why not just perform a forgetting and then kill him?

Chaos theory never gets much of a look in with time travel plots, and I guess because it'd be next to impossible to write anything based around it. But it seems implausible that people living in 3000BC, living slightly different lives each time, wouldn't drastically alter events in the future to at least the extent that these same ouroborans wouldn't continually be born each time.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've not read Replay (should I?) so the book I found myself comparing this to was Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.   Like Harry, the protagonist of that book lives a life in early twentieth century England over and over again, though they don't (at first) remember one life in the next.

And while I agree that the framing device of the book is very good, I suspect the mechanics of changing time lines and interacting ouroborans doesn't really stand up to scrutiny if you look at it too closely.

Spoiler

I assumed while reading that Harry was going to turn out to have been somebody plot-important before 'forgetting' prior to his 'first' life, but that didn't turn out to be a thing, unless I completely missed it.  Every ouroboran, I assumed, must have lived an infinite number of prior lives and have some reason for only remembering the last few.   But no, apparently sometimes ouroborans can suddenly appear for no clear reason, and yet the population of them as a whole doesn't seem to be increasing ...

And yes, I agree that the same people continually being born despite slightly different events happening in their mutual past doesn't real make logical sense.

It's certainly a fun book though.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
38 minutes ago, Plessiez said:

I've not read Replay (should I?) so the book I found myself comparing this to was Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.   Like Harry, the protagonist of that book lives a life in early twentieth century England over and over again, though they don't (at first) remember one life in the next.

 

  Hide contents

 

 

I thought Replay was also very good. It's a bit simpler than The First Fifteen Lives because it's more focused on the main character's experiences, it doesn't really have an equivalent to Harry's rivalry with his nemesis. I did find it a little bit slow to get into initially because it only really gets interesting once the first reset happens, but I thought it had some good character development happening through the various lives.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On ‎6‎/‎27‎/‎2017 at 8:02 AM, DaveSumm said:

I was so interested in the concept based on Wert's review that I stopped what I was reading and started this. Tore through it in four days, and wasn't remotely disappointed. I thought it was incredible, the best book I've read in a long time. I'd braced myself that the time-travel elements might be the b story, playing second fiddle to a different plot but it was so satisfying how much depth there was about how the ouroborans worked and how the world might look if such a thing were possible.

A few things for those that have read it...

  Hide contents

One thing that occurred to me that the book didn't go in to......Harry is on his first fifteen lives, while other ouroborans have had far more. Which means that for the first few lives of these 'older' ones, they would have been able to visit Harry before he became one. So there are a potentially infinite number of Harry's lives stretching back to however many lives ouroborans can have, each potentially different if this ouroboran chose to mess with the course of his life in some way. The difference with these fifteen is that he remembers them. And so 'linears' should more accurately be called 'potential ouroborans', as all new ouroborans would have still existed before hand from the POV of those already in existence. I guess it doesn't matter to the plot, but it was implied that the general moral consensus of the Cronus Club was that it didn't really matter what happened to linears as long as the timeline stayed roughly the same.

Was anyone else a bit disturbed by the treatment of Victor Hoeness? That's some of the most brutal torture I've ever read about, and it turned out that, by the end, they just killed him anyway?! As in, pre-birth assassination? How on Earth the club evolved to be OK with this seemed completely out of place, and moreover, unnecessary. Why not just perform a forgetting and then kill him?

Chaos theory never gets much of a look in with time travel plots, and I guess because it'd be next to impossible to write anything based around it. But it seems implausible that people living in 3000BC, living slightly different lives each time, wouldn't drastically alter events in the future to at least the extent that these same ouroborans wouldn't continually be born each time.

 

From my understanding of the book:
 

Spoiler

 

Ouroborans and linears are completely separate, ouroborans either exist or they don't. Each lifetime there can be minor deviations causing an ouroboran to be born when to the point of view of other ouroborans who've been around more than one lifetime they hadn't been born before. Conversely, when an ouroboran's parent is killed before they are born, they are never born again in future lives, ever. That's why the actions of Victor and Vincent were so severe. Through their changing time they assassinated countless future ouroborans and even when the timeline was put more or less back in shape the future ouroborans that eventually came about/ will come about are a completely new batch than those ouroborans of the future that existed before.

So before the first fifteen lives of Harry August there simply was no Harry August. Only ouroborans that had the memories wiped would have had past visits with other ouroborans that they would never remember, but they were still ouroborans at the time of those visits.

Yes, I found the treatment of Victor Hoeness was quite disturbing yet fascinating at the same time, like a good horror story. Also if Victor was an eidetic ouroboran a forgetting would not have taken, which is something Harry suspected. Maybe the club didn't know this, maybe they did. But as for the club erasing him, maybe they were afraid even if they could make him forget he'd become a person that would do the same kind of damage again. Plus, those few ouroborans of the future that survived viewed what he did as a holocaust for the club members, they wanted him punished and then they wanted him gone from existence, even though it was cruel, the fear and anger and thus the action did not seem out of place to me.

 

 

1 hour ago, Plessiez said:

I've not read Replay (should I?) so the book I found myself comparing this to was Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.   Like Harry, the protagonist of that book lives a life in early twentieth century England over and over again, though they don't (at first) remember one life in the next.

 

Yes, I 100% recommend Replay. Super fun book.

Did you know Kate Atkinson wrote a kind of sequel to Life after Life? It's A God in Ruins. I was disappointed that it didn't have the same plot device as Life After Life, just a mundane (for the most part) fiction story detailing the life of Ursula Todd's younger brother Edward with a touch of the essence of Life After Life. I did enjoy it for what it was though.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Will definitely try Replay at some point soon then, thanks.

On 7/27/2017 at 9:34 PM, drawkcabi said:

Did you know Kate Atkinson wrote a kind of sequel to Life after Life? It's A God in Ruins. I was disappointed that it didn't have the same plot device as Life After Life, just a mundane (for the most part) fiction story detailing the life of Ursula Todd's younger brother Edward with a touch of the essence of Life After Life. I did enjoy it for what it was though.

Oh, yes, I've read A God In Ruins too; I thought it was very well done but but it's an incredibly  bleak novel in a way that the first book never really seemed to be.  (I've tried a couple of Atkinson's other books and found them pretty depressing too.)

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On ‎7‎/‎30‎/‎2017 at 7:09 AM, Plessiez said:

Will definitely try Replay at some point soon then, thanks

 

There's also another book called "Repeat". It's written by an amateur author and it shows, but a well educated amateur author so it's not a chore to read. It's also very fun and focuses on the mental stress of repeating life after life. It's an Amazon Kindle e-book and you can read it for free with Kindle Unlimited.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I read this book after seeing this thread, so thanks for the recommendation @Werthead et al!  I enjoyed it quite a lot.  I almost always like stories about characters who perceive time differently.  I've read and enjoyed Replay, All You Need is Kill, and Time's Arrow.  If anyone has other recommendations for this I'd be happy to hear them.

On this story:

Spoiler

I agree with those that say this novel makes less sense if you think really carefully about the details of the Ouroborians.  If all of these people were living different lives and interacting with different people each lifetime, then it would have effects, without a doubt.  An Ouroborian having a love affair a thousand years ago causes a man not to meet his regular wife, and they don't have 5 kids, who don't have 17 grandkids, and so on, until centuries later Harry ceases to exist.   But oh well, otherwise the Ouroborians would be disappearing constantly and the story wouldn't really work. 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You can't possibly scrutinize the internal logic.  Some time-bending SF authors create very specific rules to avoid paradox but this simply isn't one of them.  It's really fantasy rather than SF in its treatment of the ouroborans.  But very well written, a compelling scenario and an enjoyable read.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0