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.
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.
My review (major spoilers!):
Executive summary: creative
This book is SO good. I thought it was really creative, and I hope that this author puts out more stuff (Claire North is a pen name for Catherine Webb).
As you can probably guess from the title, there’s a reason why Harry August has had 15 lives. He cannot die. Every time he lives out his life, he is reborn into the exact same situation where he began with all the memories from his previous lives. His biological father raped (coerced?) his mother and Harry was born in the women’s bathroom of a train station in Northern England. His mother died during childbirth. Each life, Harry ended up being adopted by some close relatives who could not have children, and in general treated Harry just fine.
During his fourth life, he realizes that there are others like him (unfortunately too late) and upon starting life #5, The Cronus Club (made up of other ouroborons like Harry) begin to take him out of each of his lives early under the guise of special scholarships and the like so that his 100+ year old mind doesn’t have to sit through middle school over and over again. The Cronus Club operates in a sort of pay it forward type of way in that a scholarship fund of sorts is set up (they do a lot of betting on horses and the like since they know who will win) and older members are responsible for pulling out new members at the correct age when they are reborn.
Throughout lives 5-11, Harry learns and learns and learns. He travels, learns seemingly every language there is, and meets a variety of other oudoboron. They all spend their lives differently. Some prefer to engage in very risky behavior like fighting in wars. Others prefer to maximize their fun since there’s no consequences. Harry in general is fairly straight laced. He loves to learn. Sometimes he marries, other times he doesn’t. He typically lands in some sort of science-related field.
Nearing his “death” at life number 11, he is visited by a young oudoboron (he always dies for a similar reason at approximately the same time, but the only thing that is always exactly the same in every life is his birth) who passes along a message. “The world is ending, as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”
He doesn’t really think too much of it because really, what does that mean? So he spends his twelfth life doing a lot of research. And he finds that technology is indeed speeding up. Following some leads to Russia, he finds a man who he had met in life #5 when he was a professor. The man, during that life, was a student named Vincent Rankis, who had big ideas even then and even bigger ideas now. Scientific curiosity convinces Harry to join Vincent on his mission to develop a quantum mirror–something which would allow comprehension of the entire universe. During this time, he discovers that Vincent is a mnemonic, a oudoboron who never forgets (this is quite rare as most of the others eventually begin to forget their early lives). It turns out that Harry, too, is a mnemonic, but he does not reveal this detail to Vincent.
Eventually Harry realizes that he and Vincent are the cause of the message that he received at his death bed. He decides to take a few days away from the lab (he hasn’t left in 10 years) and finds the Leningrad Cronus Club is gone. He tracks down the tomb of the one woman from there who he knew, and finds a cryptic message saying that her death was violent and unexpected (members of the Cronus Club always left messages and clues for each other throughout time). Harry knows in his mind who was behind this (Vincent) and is conflicted as to what to do. He decides to return, and Vincent confirms the suspicion. He doesn’t like the Cronus Clubs because in his mind, they don’t do anything new or different, just live the same lives over and over.
Harry decides to flee, but Vincent foils it. He restrains Harry and questions and tortures him about his point of origin. (The only way to truly kill a oudoboron is to prevent them from being born, and the only way that you can do that is to know where the person is born and who his/her mother is.) Harry refuses to give in. He convinces the main torturer to bring him poison, and Harry manages to take enough to not be able to recover. In his slow death, Vincent decides to perform a Forgetting on Harry. (This is an uncommon thing performed on oudoborons when they have had a particularly traumatizing event.) When he awakes, he realizes that the treatment didn’t work, but it doesn’t matter, Vincent has him killed.
When Harry awakes in life #13, he still remembers everything from the previous lives. And he knows that he needs to find Vincent. At six, he sends a letter, as he always does, to the London Cronus Club to save him, but no one appears. He sneaks away to find that the London Cronus Club no longer exists. Eventually when he is older, he finds out that the Cronus Club ceased to exist in 1909 due to lack of new members. Harry suspects that Victor had done a mass forgetting and heads to Vienna and proves it. He becomes a professional criminal both trying to trace Vincent and also trying to glean any information from remaining Cronus Clubs. Eventually he finds one in Beijing and learns that the forgettings began in 1965 and the pre-birth killings started no earlier than 1896 and accelerated in 1931 (presumably when Vincent can help) which gives him a good timeline to find Vincent. The Beijing Club provides a name of the original person and Harry sets off. When he finds her, he is devastated to find the woman who originally saved him so many lives ago. He initiates a forgetting on her, but never encounters Vincent. It will have to wait until life #14.
In life #14, technology is so far advanced in this life, he knows that the Vincent has been hard at work for the last few years. He makes an ally with an oudoboron whose live begins a few decades before his to help carry out the mission of stopping Vincent. Harry randomly meets Vincent at a colleague’s house, and must pretend not to know him (he should have forgotten). Vincent eventually contacts Harry and begins to get Harry to work for him. Harry does to learn about Vincent’s past. Harry is good at pretending not to remember even during particularly difficult time when Vincent marries Jenny–one of Harry’s wives from a former life (and the one who he loved the most and told his secret to…and then she left him.) Harry dies earlier in this life, and before he dies, Vincent performs another forgetting. Again, it does not work.
His two other oudoboron acquaintances help him early in life #15 knowing that Vincent must be stopped. They suggest a forgetting but Harry knows it won’t work. So they begin on a plan. At sixteen, Vincent finds Harry at school, and it’s then obvious that Harry is being tracked until he eventually bumps into Vincent again in 1941 during the war. Again Harry pretends that the forgetting has worked, and again Vincent keeps Harry close, having him help with the research. Vincent is very close this time to completing his quantum mirror. Luckily Harry sabotages him from completing it despite his knowledge. Harry and Vincent both begin to die from radiation poisoning from being too close to the mirror for too long. Harry is dying more quickly and as he is dying, Vincent tells him everything. He tells his mother’s name, when he was born, and Harry has already figured out where he was born. Vincent performs yet another forgetting, and yet again it does not work. He checks himself out of the hospital, contacts his allies, and writes Vincent a letter. The game is over.
Verdict: 4.5 Stars
I thought this book was awesome. It’s a creative story set in a really great time period of modern history (which is important because it’s relived over and over). There are few stories that seem not to follow a predictable idea, and this was one. It integrated science and mystery with human drama. (Particularly in the last few lives, Harry struggled with being friends with Vincent while also knowing that he had to destroy him.) There were also sociological bits such as the fact that Harry continued to kill a serial killer in every life (even before the man had made his first kill). It was fascinating and I would definitely recommend it.