REVIEW: The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey
Dear M.R. Carey:
I was a big fan of The Girl with all the Gifts and its prequel The Boy on the Bridge, but was somehow unaware that you had a new series out set in a different dystopian world. (Thanks to Janine for letting me know!)
The Book of Koli is the first of a trilogy; here’s the blurb:
Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will.
Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls.
What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice?
The first in a gripping new trilogy, The Book of Koli charts the journey of one unforgettable young boy struggling to find his place in a chilling post-apocalyptic world. Perfect for readers of Station Eleven and Annihilation.
(I will just get out of the way that I didn’t see much of a resemblance to Station Eleven – the fall of civilization seems to have come hundreds of years before in The Book of Koli. I’ve never read or seen the movie version of Annihilation, though I have read the synopsis online and found it confusing!)
The early part of this book features Koli, the first person narrator, presumably looking back from later in life, describing the world he lives in and his growing up. Mythen Rood is a fairly primitive village of a couple of hundred people. It’s ruled by the Ramparts, those who have been given the knowledge to operate the limited amount of “tech” left over from the old world, tech that they use to protect the villagers from the rather horrifying world outside. Not only are the trees murderous, but there are shunned or “faceless” men, essentially outlaws who have been cast out from societies similar to Mythen Rood and are very dangerous.
This book started really slow for me. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the reader knows for a long time that Koli will leave Mythen Rood. (I don’t *think* that’s a spoiler; if it’s not outright stated very early on, it’s certainly implied. I mean, even the blurb kind of gives it away.) But the actual events that precipitate Koli’s being cast out don’t happen until halfway through the book. There’s a lot of action in the second half, but the first half is Koli growing up and describing the people who live around him and how his world works. It wasn’t boring, exactly, but I kept waiting for the shoe to drop.
Koli is the son of Jemiu, an unmarried woman who conceived him with a traveling locksmith who Koli’s never met. He has two sisters, and a lost brother, Jud, who disappeared when the hunting party he was with was set on by shunned men. Koli wonders a lot if Jud could possibly be out in the world alive somehow. The family runs the village sawmill, which since trees in this world are, as previously noted, murderous, is a bit of a harrowing job. There are procedures for gathering the wood without getting attacked, and then the wood needs to be steeped in poison to kill it before it can be used.
Koli has two best friends, Haijon Vennastin and Demar Tanhide, who is called Spinner. All three go into a ceremonial period calling the Waiting together when they are 15. The Waiting leads up to a test in front of the whole village. Each person to be tested chooses one of the existing pieces of tech with the intention of seeing if it “wakes” for them.
The holders of the tech are Rampart Fire (holder of a firethrower), Rampart Arrow (holder of a bolt gun), Rampart Knife (holder of a laser cutter), and Rampart Remember (holder of a database containing knowledge from previous times). If the tech wakes for one of the children at the test, they would be a sort of apprentice to the holder of that tech until that holder dies.
All of the Ramparts are members of the Vennastin family. Occasional questions about the strangeness of this are deflected with claims that people from other families were Ramparts in previous years.
Sure enough, at the testing ceremony, Spinner chooses the firethrower; it does not wake for her. Koli chooses the bolt gun; it does not wake for him. Haijon (who is, of course, a Vennastin), chooses the laser knife, and it wakes for him.
Koli has mixed feelings:
A new Rampart was good news for everyone. The best news, because the tech was only ours as long as there was someone it would wake for, and without the tech we would not thrive.
Koli is disappointed on his own behalf, though; he didn’t realize until the tech did not wake for him how much he wanted to be a Rampart. There is no shame in continuing to be Koli Woodsmith, but the Ramparts have all the power; they run the village and protect the villagers.
Koli’s dismay increases when Haijon proposes to Spinner and she accepts. Koli fancies himself in love with Spinner (I qualify this a bit because he *is* a 15-year-old boy), and she’s given him reason to believe she returns his affection. Then Koli learns some life-changing information from Ursala, a “wandering doctor” who visits Mythen Rood every year, with her own piece of tech, a sort of diagnostic cart on wheels. What Ursala tells Koli sends him on a path that ends with him outside the walls of Mythen Rood.
I’m just going to start by registering the issues I had with The Book of Koli, as is my wont. Besides the pacing problem already mentioned, I had two complaints.
The first is Koli himself – for most of the book, he’s a 15-year-old boy. He does stupid things. He can be hard to really empathize with, even though I did feel sorry for him at times. For instance, his sorrow over losing Spinner to Haijon – Koli had no real reason for not making his intentions clear to her himself. Rather he seemed to have some sort of internal hesitancy that just made him seem wishy-washy. I’m sure I was a dumb kid at one point in my life, but 1) I haven’t been one for a long time and 2) I’m pretty sure that “dumb 15-year-old boy” is a particularly pernicious subcategory of “dumb kid.”
Koli doesn’t have a really well defined personality in this first book, which again…he’s a kid. But it did cause me to not feel that connected to him, and connection is something I really value in a first-person protagonist.
The other issue is that the people of Mythen Rood speak in a dialect that took me a lot of the book to get used to. Since Koli is the narrator, it’s not just the dialogue but the bulk of the book that is written in the same stylized voice. It reads sort of….Huck Finn-ish to me? Kind of lower-class American South from the 19th century. The story is set in Britain and I kept expecting the dialect to sound more British, somehow.
A sample from the beginning of Chapter 2:
My name is Koli and I come from Mythen Rood. Being from there, it never troubled me as a child that I was ignorant what that name meant. There is people who will tell you the rood was the name of the tree where they broke the dead god, but I don’t think that’s to the purpose. Where I growed up, there wasn’t many as was swore to the dead god or recked his teaching.
I think I would have done better with the writing if it weren’t in a book with such intense world-building. I can find sci-fi and fantasy world-building a bit alienating and prefer a light touch when possible. Inaccessible writing can have a similar effect for me, so the two together meant that it wasn’t until the last third that I really felt a connection to Koli and his story.
The second half of the book worked much better for me, because there was more action and Koli was taken out of his familiar surroundings. The second half also featured more of a couple of characters I did come to like a lot – the aforementioned Ursala, and a character called Monono. I’ll spoiler-mark the next bit:
If I’m going to feel differently about the beginning and end of a book, I’d rather be blah on the first half and engaged in the second half, especially in a book that starts a series. I am hooked enough to want to continue. My grade for The Book of Koli is a high B.