(2022) Sylvain Neuvel, Michael Joseph, £16.99, hrdbk, 293pp, ISBN 978-0-241-44514-3
This is the second book in a proposed trilogy. The first book in this series, A History of What Comes Next, published back in 2021, set up the situation by telling us of the covert actions of an alien race known as the Kibsu. For thousands of years the Kibsu have been guiding human events, with the ultimate aim being to get humans to the stars before the Human race manages to kill itself off. There is an alternative motive as well, there is a risk that, according to Kibsu legend, the Earth will be attacked and destroyed by an ancient evil that will come and kill them all.
To show this the books are centred on one Kibsu family, living in secret amongst humans. A History of What Comes Next dealt with Sarah and her daughter Mia as they guided the beginnings of the Space Race through the Second World War. This second novel continues the tale, but with Mia now the mother to Lola. The timeline covers the 1960ís to the 1980ís, from the revolutions of 1968 to the Voyager 2 probe leaving Pluto in 1989.
The Kibsuís mantra are six fundamental rules:
The First Rule is the most important: Fear the Tracker. Always run
Preserve the knowledge.
Survive at all costs.
Donít draw attention to yourself.
Donít leave a trace.
Last and certainly not least: there can never be three for too long.
These rules are adhered to with brutal efficiency, for the good of the many. People are killed, evidence obliterated, lives uprooted. Of the original bloodline there is now only Mia and Lola. Continuing the bloodline through daughters, the Kibsu are always on the run, knowing that if they are discovered by the Trackers they will be killed. In a separate story arc, we hear of a trio of brothers who are Trackers, determined to kill what they see as a scourge on the Human race, for in their opinion it is the Kibsu that will cause human extermination. They are appropriately violently psychotic.
Like last time this story in very short chapters is interspersed with stories of older members of the Kibsu Hundred. This includes Aglaonike of Thessaly, and mathematician Hypatia amongst others, all women solving science and creating theories that have moulded us into what we are today, redressing the imbalance that it is always the males doing the scientific advancement. Sylvain does well to again mix real people in with the fantasy, although I must admit that bringing in Jack the Ripper was a touch too extreme for me.
A couple of bugbears. The coverís a little misleading in that its style suggests to me that that much of the book will be based on the Soviet perspective of the Space Race Ė the first book had a Nazi style rocket on its cover, which seemed appropriate for the events of the novel.
Whilst the developments of the USSR are undoubtedly important to this story, and are mentioned, the book is focussed upon the achievements of the USA, such as the Space Shuttle and the Voyager probes. And this as much a fault of history rather than the book. The Space Race had pretty much fizzled out by the late 1970s, when the achievements of the Americans were still amazing but sadly less inspiring. Instead of Apollo (an event rarely mentioned here, oddly) we have the unmanned Pioneer and Voyager, and to a lesser extent the Russian Venera. Vostok and Soyuz are rarely mentioned.
Clearly, we are laying the foundations for future space travel here but, as in real life, the enthusiasm of the 1940ís and 50ís has given way to the hard-headed practicalities of the 80ís and 90ís. With less of a direct human input, the travel into the Solar System seem less interesting. More on the Russian cosmonauts would have readdressed this, I think.
To get around this further, the book is kept moving with a plot McGuffin involving a search for ancient relics - a Scythian bow with alien inscription, and a strange sphere which may hold the answer to many secrets. This involves Mia and Lola travelling to places such as Egypt, Pakistan, and China in ways that seem a little forced plot-wise but give us a bigger picture of what is happening in the world whilst the manned Space Race isnít happening.
Thereís a lot of Until the Last of Me that I liked Ė the marrying of fiction with real events, the descriptions of other planets that still generate a sense of wonder Ė but it isnít perfect. Thereís a couple of plot points that didnít work for me, one involving a fight with a desert wolf heavy in symbolism and thereís at least one coincidence that seems too good to be true, but on the whole the book builds relentlessly until the classic conflict at the end. Despite my reservations it was still readable, and I found it difficult to put down.
You could read this as a standalone Ė there are enough explanations of what has gone before to make it followable Ė but I would probably recommend reading A History of What Comes Next first to follow things fully.
Like last time, thereís a playlist available, each track being the title of one of the 65 chapters in the book dating from 1968 Ė 1989, and thereís another great Further Reading list at the back of the book that shows how many of the people and events in the story are connected to real people, places and events. Even if you donít enjoy the novel, the playlist (on Spotify and no doubt other streaming platforms) is terrific.
In short, Until the Last of Me is a typical middle book in a trilogy. Things happen, building upon what has happened in the first book, but things are not concluded. Consequently, I donít think this novel is as good as the first, although it is still undeniably intelligent and literate. Nevertheless, I look forward to the third book.
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