Fiction Reviews

The Book of Koli

(2020) M. R. Carey, Orbit, £14.99, pbk, 375pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50955-6


This is volume one of Careyís 'Rampart' trilogy, to be followed by The Trials Of Koli and The Fall Of Koli.

This is a post-apocalyptic coming of age story set generations after a nuclear and environmental holocaust.  Koli is a teenage boy in the village community of Mythen Rood (Mytholmroyd) in the Calder Valley in Yorkshire.  Other settlements referenced include Baron Furness (Barrow-In-Furness). Carey has a lot of fun with the pidgin-English language on such identifiers which can detract from the serious tone of the overall work.

The Mythen Rood settlement is surrounded by extremely hostile nature, with giant spiders, mole-snakes, and walking trees, as well as cannibalistic human predators.  There are also airborne drone attacks from machines still apparently fighting the old war.

The main defence of Mythen Rood is entrusted to a handful of rampart-class citizens who are able to use rare salvaged, re-activated technology of the pre-disaster era, including a flame thrower and a cross-bow able to fire heat-seeking arrows.

Koli hopes the revered tech will chose him to be one of the latest group of Rampart defenders but the devices refuse to switch on for him.  After a meeting with Ursala, a healer-midwife who travels between the villages protected by a formidable robotic medical field hospital machine called The Druge, Koli comes to suspect that the magical bond between the elite Ramparts and their weapons may be being faked.

Koli breaks into the tech store in the village, liberating a mysterious cube-like device he has no comprehension of.  When it activates in the Siri-like voice of a girl called Monono, and plays music by a forgotten long-since dead singer (Lady Ga-Ga), Koli finds himself exiled from the people he knows and cast in the deadly forest outside. Much of the story now focuses on his struggle to learn and survive.

Much seen as magical and mystical proves to have a scientific explanation, and there is a genuine sense of dread, uncertainty and danger throughout the book. The pack-hunting trees are particularly scary.

Koli rather fragments his narration by starting to tell parts of his story and then apologizing for having to tell us about other events first, frequently going off at tangents, pushing some teaser hints ever deeper into the book.  We are told Koli has not yet learned to read and write so the Book of the title is clearly something he will start writing in one of the sequels.

Monono is a great disembodied character, a virtual reality artificial intelligence in a futuristic I-phone device.  That Koli keeps her unit a secret even when captured by followers of a crazed cult leader who donít search him very efficiently is a little unconvincing, but Mononoís cheeky yet affectionate discourses, and her own more unexpected and moving story when she seeks upgrades to her programming are a highlight of the fast moving text.

A lot is set up for the second stage of Koliís adventure, and much we are given hinges on the characters not being aware of just what the machines and gadgets they have are capable of, but the reader can quickly identify just what the mysterious objects are well ahead of Koli, his allies and opponents.

The main characters are well drawn while the other villagers donít seem quite so fully fleshed out.

While surrounded by people and devices able to fire bullets, arrow-bolts and fire, Koli has the most dangerous device at all, a machine that can give him answers, maps, and information, as well as a cool MP3 play list. This is one of those novels that seems to come at you with a pop and rock music soundtrack.

Arthur Chappell

See also Ian's take on The Book of Koli.


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