book review: the first fifteen lives of harry august


This book was suggested to me by the great underbelly of the internet, What should I read next? Not a bad recommendation following Station Eleven. Literary qualities in a science fiction novel, nice for a change.

Concept: "Kalachakra" or "ouroboran" live the same life over and over. Groundhog day for a lifetime. But apparently not all of the members of this so-called Cronus Club live the same life... someone is making history speed up. Why are mobile phones in everyone's hands in 1973? Who is changing history and how? And why?

[ominous dun dun dun....]

I give this book four stars. It so easily could have been five, but I can't in good conscience say I entirely loved a book in which I had to skim several large portions to stay awake. Frankly, a few of the lives of Harry August are quite boring, like when he decides to be a philosophy professor... sorry, author, I'm not gonna read that entire lecture. Snooze.  

However, despite a couple unfortunate boring sections, the story here is awesome. Harry is always born in 1919 and lives through the same historical events each life (until things start to move too fast). Once Harry realizes that he can remember everything from the last time through (and, bonus, he is a mnemonic, a rare even among ouroborans whose recall is 100% perfect), he can learn to read and write every language on the planet. He can win bets on horse races. He can regularly save the lives of a few so-called "linears" that he knows in advance will be abused or murdered. He can become a surgeon, a soldier in WW2, a spy, a physicist, a philosopher... Under the guidance of the Cronus Clubs in every major city worldwide, Harry learns everything there is to learn (except golf, because "I like to tell myself I could have been a good golfer, if only I'd given a damn, but perhaps the simple truth is that there are some skills which experience cannot buy.") but faces an enemy who has discovered how to permanently kill the kalachakra--friends he's known for hundreds and years and dozens of lives who are not reborn.

Harry's personal conflicts are many. His relationship with his father always changes. Many opportunities to "make it right" (and no great success) shed light onto the truth that relationships will always require effort from both sides. His various marriages and friendships all show different aspects of his characters as he ages and matures (when 900 years you reach...). Interesting to hear from a character who has to decide if a dangerous spy mission is worth it because facing death means having to face potty training again.

Bottom line: lots and lots of intrigue. Super fun alternative history. Some very fascinating twists and a GREAT "I open at the close" ending.

NOTE: Philosophically, this book is extremely atheist, and I am a Christian. But for the purpose of reading fiction, I am fine with accepting the worldview of the author to enjoy an interesting and unique story.