Book Review: “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North

One of my reading goals this year has been to read more science fiction because it’s not a genre I normally gravitate toward. The premise of “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” sounded really intriguing, so I was excited to finally be able to download this one on Audible. However, if anything, my experience reading this book only reinforced why I don’t normally read sci-fi… It wasn’t bad by any means, but it wasn’t great either.

Spoiler-Free Review: “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” tells the story of Harry, a man who never really dies, but continues to relive his life over and over again. It’s kind of like “Groundhog Day,” but instead of reliving the same day over and over, Harry is reborn after death in the same time and place every time. Therefore, he repeatedly has to start his life over as a child even though he has the memories and knowledge of many years and lifetimes. Though suspense is attempted with a message passed on from the future threatening that the end of the world is coming, there are really no stakes because everything is undone when Harry “dies.” Harry is also a very flat character, which makes it difficult to care too much about what happens to him. Though not technically a time-travel story, there were many time-travel-related plot holes that bothered me the entire time I was reading. Due to flat characters, low stakes, and under-developed science fiction elements, this book has an interesting but poorly executed premise that ends up being entirely forgettable.

Below you will find a more thorough review containing my thoughts about the book. There are some spoilers ahead, so if you’d prefer to avoid those go ahead and jump to the TL;DR summary at the bottom of the page for a spoiler-free summary of my thoughts.

“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August: North, Claire: 0884264542922:  Amazon.com: Books
  • Year of Publication: 2014
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Summary:

    “Some stories cannot be told in just one lifetime. 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.”
  • Trigger Warnings: Murder. Violence. Suicide. Torture.

Format: Audiobook (Narrated by Peter Kenny)

Themes: Find meaning in your life (and death). True friendship transcends time. Make the most of the time you have.

Character Development:  Weak. The main character, Harry August, was incredibly boring. We spend most of the novel inside his head, listening to his philosophical thoughts and tangents that don’t add much to the story. Even with being inside his head for the entire book and watching him relive his life and childhood over and over again, we don’t actually get to know him that well. There are many side characters that appear sporadically throughout the story, but we don’t really get to know them either. A novel that isn’t character-driven can be acceptable with an exceptional plot, however…

Plot/Pacing: Painfully slow. The blurb from the publisher makes this book seem like a thriller because the world is in jeopardy and Harry has to save it, but that’s really not the case. For a large portion of the novel, it’s just world-building and learning how Harry reacts in his first few lives after realizing he can’t really die. Initially, this concept was actually pretty interesting, but I was waiting for more to come and it never really did. I also just found there to be plot holes everywhere. Each time Harry dies and begins a new life, all of the other “kalachakra” (people who are born again at the same point in time) also begin a new life in that new timeline (is it a new timeline?). How does this work? If Harry were to die early in one of his lives and be reborn, would that have any impact on the other kalachakra and the timelines they’re existing in? Also, is each life a separate timeline? This is never really made clear. With time travel stories, there’s always an emphasis on not changing the past or the future (a theme that appears in this novel as well), but at the same time it’s made clear that kalachakra can’t impact the past or the future. So there are really no stakes. Also, with so many people having the ability to relive their lives over and over, there would have to be a massive butterfly effect leading to each life/world being drastically different. Who’s to say what the world is really supposed to be like? There’s also the issue of the “quantum mirror” that Harry’s student and friend Vincent wants to build. It’s some sort of contraption that would allow them to “be gods” and… see the future? Change the future? I’m not entirely sure. The lack of development of this contraption (a major part of the plot) also made it difficult for me to engage with what was going on. With under-developed ideas, plot holes, and the clearly established fact that nothing they do will really matter since they can’t actually change things, I just ended up feeling bored the whole time.

Writing Style:  Eloquent, but with too many tangents and unclear world building and weak character development. It was mostly chronological, but every once in a while would jump to a moment from a different life. These jumps were a little jarring, and especially difficult to follow in an audio format. I also found the ending to be abrupt and kind of anti-climactic.

“Bingeability”: Low. I kept picking it back up because I wanted to see if it would get better, but there was never a time when it felt hard to put down or when I couldn’t wait to get back to reading it. This is definitely due to the lack of overall suspense in the novel.

Emotional Investment: Low. I couldn’t have cared less about the characters. It’s especially hard knowing that they can’t actually die (well, unless they’re murdered while in the womb apparently), so when the characters are in peril there’s no real sense of danger. You know that they’ll just start over.

Windows and Mirrors: Many world events throughout history. Time travel?

Overall Thoughts: I don’t think this book was bad. It was just… boring. However, I know a lot of people have really liked this book, so maybe I missed something? This isn’t a genre I normally read, so it’s entirely possible my own biases/preferences impacted my reading experience. That being said, I do think the premise is really interesting! If you’re interested in time travel stories, this is a unique take on it. I was just underwhelmed and felt it could have been executed better, but it certainly wasn’t bad.

Recommendation: No, I don’t really recommend this book. If you LOVE science fiction then you might want to check it out, as it is a unique concept. However, I think there are better science fiction and time-travel stories out there.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
 

TL;DR:
Year of Publication: 2014
Genre: Science Fiction
Summary: “Some stories cannot be told in just one lifetime. 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.”
Themes: Life and death. Friendship. Time. Morality.
Character Development: Weak.
Plot/Pacing:
Slow with many plot holes.
Writing Style:
Eloquent but meandering.
“Bingeability”:
Low.
Emotional Investment:
Low.
Windows and Mirrors:
Many world events throughout history. Time travel?
Overall Thoughts:
Not bad, just boring. A unique take on time travel, but poorly executed.
Recommendation: No, I I don’t really recommend this book.
Rating: 3/5

Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any other thoughts about it, and keep an eye out for next week’s* review! (*Hopefully, my posting schedule has been thrown off by my recent return to my virtual classroom. It’s been an incredibly busy time, but I’m going to try my best to keep up with my blogging!)

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