REVIEW: The Trials of Koli by M.R. Carey
Dear M.R. Carey:
I gave the first book in this series, The Book of Koli, a high B, and was optimistic that some of the issues I had with the book would be less of a problem in the sequels. Happily, I was correct.
NOTE: this review contains lots of spoilers for events that occurred in The Book of Koli.
This story starts with Koli and his three companions traveling towards London, or what’s left of it. They are following a mysterious signal emanating from an entity called the Sword of Albion. With Koli are: Ursala, the healer who inadvertently set in motion the events that caused Koli to be banished from his village of Mythen Rood; Cup, a young trans woman who Koli and Ursala first encountered as part of a bloodthirsty cult in the first book; and last but not least, Monono Aware, the AI who appears to have become something more since Koli first “met” her.
A bit about Monono, since she’s my favorite character and I felt like saying too much about her in the first review was really too spoilery. She lives inside a Sony Dreamsleeve, a piece of tech that Koli stole from the family that essentially rules Mythen Rood. When Koli first was able to “wake” the tech, Monono appeared as a (to me) somewhat annoying manic pixie dream girl, flirting with Koli as she makes music suggestions for him (the Dreamsleeve is a sort of advanced music player). But at one point in book one, Monono “goes away” and comes back with vastly more knowledge gleaned from bouncing around what cyberworld still exists. (The fact that the internet does exist in some form sort of confuses me, but either it’ll be explained at some point or maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge about how long satellites can hang around space and ping signals back to Earth.) Monono also reveals a heartbreaking backstory: the “real” flesh and blood Monono Aware was a Japanese pop star, a young woman with a tragic childhood who rose to fame and fortune before committing suicide at age 26. Though the current Monono isn’t the “real” Monono – just a facsimile created to sell Dreamsleeves – it’s hard not to anthromorphize her, especially since her travels around cyberspace seem to have caused an evolution that have made her even more human-like. (It just occurred to me that she reminds me a bit of my favorite character from “The Good Place” – Janet. Not personality-wise, but in their trajectory from “not a real girl” to someone who sure does seem like she can feel emotions.)
Forgive the digression – I just really love Monono; she’s Koli’s best friend and protector and just a really interesting and poignant character in her own right.
Traveling towards London, the group encounters a hostile band of soldiers from Half-Ax, a community that has grown in power over the years and one whose leader is attempting to exert authority over an ever-widening area. Getting out of that jam strengthens the group’s bonds as they continue the journey. They eventually find a (mostly) friendly fishing village, where they learn they’ll need to continue their search for the Sword of Albion by boat.
(The purpose of the trip, besides figuring out what or who the Sword of Albion is, is Koli’s quest to see if he can find a larger place for the remaining people in England to congregate, in the hopes of increasing genetic diversity – a concept he learned of from Ursala – and save the dwindling human race. Koli may be young and naïve, but he does dream big.)
Parallel to this a new voice in the first person narrative is introduced: Spinner, Koli’s erstwhile first love, who has stayed in Mythen Rood and is married to Jon, Koli’s best friend. It’s interesting to get Spinner’s perspective on Koli vs. Jon as suitors. In the first book, Koli believed if he had declared himself to Spinner first, she would have married him. But Spinner is a bit more calculating than Koli ever realized (again, Koli tends to naiveté) – she was always focused on Jon as a mate. Who wouldn’t be? Jon is a Vennastin, and they rule Mythen Rood. That said, Spinner loves Jon and her love for him grows in the course of the story.
But Spinner has other problems to face. Perliu, Jon’s grandfather is Rampart Remember, the holder of the database that Mythen Rood derives its knowledge from. Unfortunately (and I guess ironically), Rampart Remember’s memory is failing, and he chooses to take Spinner into his confidence when a mysterious illness sweeps through the community. Perliu needs someone to help him ask the database the right questions, those that will help Mythen Rood defeat the plague. He chooses Spinner, but his choice is not without risks; it involves taking Spinner into his confidence about the real nature of the tech that Mythen Rood holds and why it only ever seems to “wake” for the Vennastins.
The Trials of Koli didn’t have the same stage-setting exposition that slowed the early part of The Book of Koli down for me. There is a good deal more action, in both stories (Koli’s and Spinner’s). I had some trouble relating to Koli in the first book; his youth and guilelessness made him do dumb things just a bit too often and it tried my patience with him. I still like him best interacting with Monono; she balances him and I think matures him, given that in contrast to Koli, Monono is *so* worldly.
(I also have adjusted to the odd dialect that Koli and most of the other characters use. It’s not my favorite, but it doesn’t bug me as it did in the first book.)
I really liked getting Spinner’s perspective as well; she advances the story back in Mythen Rood and sets up what I hope will be the destruction of the Vennastin empire. (There is lip service given to the idea that the Vennastins do what they do for the good of Mythen Rood as a whole and not just their family, but people in power always think that it just happens to be in everyone’s best interest that they have the power.)
I do still wonder about the pacing of the trilogy a bit – it feels like the last book needs to resolve a lot of threads, and after all the fate of the human race is hangs in the balance. I’m looking forward to the resolution, though! My grade for The Trials of Koli is a high B+.