Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey

The trees have an appetite in this post-apocalyptic coming-of-age adventure
Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio, photography by Blake Morrow
The Book of Koli is the first in a new trilogy by M.R Carey (who also writes as Mike Carey) - author of many well-known books that I've never read, including The Girl With All the Gifts, as well as plenty of comics and screenplays and basically all of the things.. I actually had the opportunity to hear Carey read from the book before its release, at London's Super Relaxed Fantasy Club (currently using the lockdown to curate some wonderful content online for those of all geographic persuasions), and the unique voice of its protagonist and the promise of a dangerous but fascinating post-apocalyptic world drew me right in.

That protagonist's voice is, of course, the character of Koli, who in the framing device is narrating his life to an unknown audience from a later point. For most of the events of this initial volume, Koli is fifteen years old, and resides in Mythen Rood, in the Calder Valley, an unknown number of centuries in the future. Though some of the speech cadences and the overall geography of this part of West Yorkshire are still recognisable, its ecosystem is far from our own, thanks to extreme genetic engineering in response to climate change. Now everything including the trees themselves have become voracious and deadly, and humans are reduced to small isolated settlements which are increasingly cut off from each other, unable to go outside during sunshine when the deadliest parts of their new world are most active.

On the cusp of adulthood with big dreams despite his very limited experiences, Koli is devastated when, at his coming-of-age ceremony, he fails to "wake" any of Mythen Rood's old tech and become confirmed as a Rampart, one of the elites charged with protecting the village with their few remaining useful pieces of gadgetry. Of course, Koli's older and wiser self points out that all of the Ramparts have come from the same family for generations, and its not hard to work out that something sketchy is going on that swings the ceremony in their favour. For the young Koli of the story this realisation is hard won, and his disappointment over failing the test turns to scheming when he figures it out - and the fact that his two childhood best friends are about to marry each other when he has feelings for one of them doesn't help him make good choices either. Koli's hunt for answers and increasing willingness to break the rules brings him into the orbit of two very different people who expand his perspective on his world in unexpected ways. Their guidance, coupled with Koli's inability to sit still and accept the life offered to him in the village, combine to change the course of his life irrevocably, and bring him into the firing line of far more human dangers than he is used to facing.

I went into The Book of Koli with the expectation that it would involve some travel away from Mythen Rood (and it does) but not much else, and to say much else about how the plot unfolds would spoil its revelatory twists (though the retrospective framing does significant hints about the survival of a couple of characters, including Koli himself). The biggest strength of the story is how vividly drawn the worldbuilding is from two angles: on one level, we have Koli's immediate perspective, explaining the dangers of the forest, the organisation of Mythen the organisation of Mythen Rood and the crumbling links with villages beyond it, the leadership of the Vennastins and acceptance of this by others. On another, however, the story encourages us to hunt for clues about what elements of our own world exist, what might have happened beyond the genetic engineering which Koli understands, and just how far things have changed from our own understanding of the world (for instance, Koli describes Mythen Rood as "big", meaning that it has three main roads, and doesn't know the meaning of "millions"). The last book I can think of that balanced multiple levels of mystery like this is Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman, and I was just as satisfied by The Book of Koli's iteration of a style of worldbuilding design that I'd love to see more of in my reading.

Because Koli's voice is so important in every element of the story, enjoyment of The Book of Koli equally relies on his being a compelling character. There's a lot of talent on display here in balancing Koli's very limited worldview with his natural curiosity, critical thinking abilities and sense of fairness, though in unfortunate but understandable fifteen-year-old fashion he is only really motivated by unfair things that directly affect him. In particular, one of the religions of Mythen Rood disavows trans identities, and one of Koli's friends is shown as having been abused and denied his identity due to his parents, something which Koli doesn't agree with but doesn't openly protest or empathise the injustice of either. Though readers with a low tolerance for self-sabotaging teenage protagonists might find Koli a tough sell, his redeeming qualities, coupled with the retrospective narrative, in which Koli's older self makes it clear how daft he finds himself at points during his own past, kept him just on the right side of sympathetic young adult for me, and while there's a slight overabundance of hostile or ignorant adults arrayed against Koli, his allies in particular make for compelling characters and the motivations of his primary antagonists are reasonable, if hard to sympathise with from the point of view we see them from.

All in all, The Book of Koli was a great success for me: a book which delivers on its atmospheric post-apocalyptic worldbuilding and whose protagonist's annoyances are balanced out by his potential. As the opening of a trilogy, The Book of Koli ends at an interesting "pause" point but doesn't have anything which could really be called an ending, and from older Koli's opening paragraphs, we know there's a lot more for him to do before he catches up with himself (and I hope we learn a bit more about who he is telling the story too in the process). Luckily, there shouldn't be long at all to wait until The Trials of Koli hits the shelves and we find out a bit more about Koli's world, its past, and where he fits in to its future.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Deeply satisfying multi-level worldbuilding that balances audience knowledge and character knowledge

Penalties: -1 Teenage boys never change no matter how post-apocalyptic the situation you put them in

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Posted by: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Carey M.R., The Book of Koli [Orbit, 2020]