BSFA Shortlist Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

TheFirstFifteenLivesofHarryAugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Setting: Pre- and post-WWII Europe. Over and over again. With some dalliances to China, Argentina, U.S.

Summary: Harry August is a “kalachakra,” a person who lives his life over and over again, but he is a “mnemonic,” and remembers everything from his previous lives. A little girl (another kalachakra) brings him a message to his deathbed: The world is ending, but more rapidly than before. Harry thinks he knows why, but can he stop it without becoming part of the problem?

Existential quote:

What is the point of me? [145]

Some reader criticism: It’s so boring. It’s just about this old guy.

My response: Shouldn’t you be watching your cartoons right now?

Why it’s so cool: Forget redundant reincarnation. That’s just the crux. With the barreling invasion of premature technology (color television in the forties, cell phones in the sixties), North (Webb, actually) conveys a surreal world unready for its advancements. Maybe it’s not so surreal…

How it feels: Riveting, with game playing and historical manipulation. Taut with character tension. Not since Batman and Joker have a protagonist and antagonist needed each other so badly. High quality storytelling.

Funny lines like:

If Pietrok-111 was a one-horse town, Pietrok-112 was the glue factory where that horse went to die. [174]

Best enjoyed by: Book or audio. North’s writing is captivating, but Peter Kenny’s narration is like buttah. (Kenny can switch character voices on a dime, hence his recent Audie Award nomination.)

SF literary sibling: Oh, you already read that other big name 2014 SF novel about a club of immortals who battle for control over time and reality? This one comes without the contrived and exaggerated fantasy mess.

Should you read this? Yes. Yes, you should read this.

Should you give this to a friend for Valentine’s Day? I did.


This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review:
Wolves by Simon Ings


13 thoughts on “BSFA Shortlist Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

  1. Well glad I already have it on my shelf then.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      You’ll love it. I am so impressed by North/Webb. Didn’t want it to end.

      Liked by 1 person

      • HUZZAH. I have now returned to re-read this review after having finished the book a few minutes ago. It was so good. Oh my god. So good. She really can write. Occasionally I considered the amount of historical data she had to hold in her head all the time to write this, and was astounded again.

        You mentioned the audio narration being like butter, but that is kind of how I felt about the entire thing (and I read it on paper). Such a smooth read, I kept thinking. I wanted it to end because I wanted to find out what would happen, but of course not in the “when is this shitpile going to finally be over” kind of way.

        The one horse town line! I underlined that too! HaHA!

        I can’t believe there are people who actually thought this was boring, or just about some old guy. Talk about missing the point.

        What I don’t understand is why you bother with a pen name if you so obviously (like, on the inside cover of the book) explain that you are really this other author with this other name. Hmm.


        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          DID YOU SEE THAT IT MADE THE CLARKE AWARD SHORTLIST THIS MORNING?! I’m so happy because it did so poorly at the BSFA.

          I went between audio and book and it is a very smooth read. But it’s not often I want to continue listening to narration. He’s just so good…

          I really think this would make a great movie. The dramatic tension is perfect for the big screen.

          I also don’t get the pseudonym. It always makes me think the author is trying to sneak into the genre. It was a good mystery, though. A lot of people thought she was a male author. Some even thought she was Clive Barker.


          • HA. Thought she was Clive Barker. Well.

            YEEEES Clarke shortlist! Go Harry August, go! Maybe something good will win an award this year. I hear that happens sometimes. HA. Though I shouldn’t complain, The Girl in the Road just won the Tiptree and is supposed to be awesome, and I am bumping it waaay up my reading list now. To like tomorrow.

            I can imagine this doing well as a movie too, though I’m not entirely sure it would be a movie I would want to watch. I enjoy serious books but not so much (or as often) serious movies. Thinking of this as a movie keeps making me think of Benjamin Button. Also nice. Also sad and maybe more serious than I want in a film I watch on purpose.

            Vincent and Harry. Aahhh, perfect nemises. Really perfect. I’ll have to listen to this on a re-read, though I think I will want to wait ten years, so I forget everything that happened. Oh my god the forced forgetting. So harrowing.


  2. wildbilbo says:

    You sold this one – on the TBR.


  3. Tammy says:

    I’m getting a copy of North’s latest Touch any day now, and this book is already on my list;


  4. […] Hardinge The Moon King by Neil Williamson Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire […]


  5. […] Correction: It was just released! Super stoked for Hutchinson and North after the disappointing BSFA results! Mandel’s is a fresh take on a old story, but […]


  6. […] my quickie-review, and here’s more info on the award and the list of […]


  7. […] smooth and enjoyable read. And what a structural feat, christ on a bike. I never did review it, but From Couch to Moon did a short write up that will give you the right idea. The right idea being that you should read […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s