I’m a sucker for a post-apocalyptic novel, so when it seemed like some friends wanted to read The Book of Koli, followed by a serendipitous sale, it seemed like a good time for a flash group read. Plus, aggressive plants! And I don’t mean in that annoying, never-get-that-burr-out-of-wool kind of way, or the poison-ivy-burn kind of way, but plants that actually chased down and squished people. Fun times!
Oh, except Koli. Koli is not fun, as Koli is a teenage boy. One thing you can say about M.R. Carey: he writes many shades of extremely annoying characters. From Felix Castor the alcoholic wizard (the Felix Castor series); to The Boy on the Bridge, Stephen Greaves; to Koli, currently Faceless. I mean, Carey nails it. Koli is pretty much like that emotionally immature ten year-old that you know but don’t want to mention, in case his mom gets pissed. He spends free time playing with the friends. He moons after his bestie, Spinner. He’s unable to verbalize his feelings or thoughts to friends, family or himself; we’re getting the benefit of much of this through past-lens. Despite his community having a clear-cut coming-of-age ceremony, he’s given no thought to his life and what he might become. When he doesn’t magically become ‘special,’ he is crushed, and becomes despondent. He has no solution, and only a chance encounter with a passing stranger gives him a new goal. Not one with noble purpose, mind you, but to merely take a different route to the same magical ‘specialness.’ Oh yes; he has emotional immaturity written all over him.
“I was fifteen years old, I thought myself in love and in all respects I was as shallow as a puddle.”
It’s enough to make you want to shake a certain Koli, honestly. While I have to give kudos to Carey for such clearly characterization, further discussion with my co-readers leads me to question Koli’s developmental stage in context of his society. Undoubtedly, Carey had some real-life basis for his 15 year-old ; the trouble is that none of the 15 year-olds he knows has had to do physical labor to contribute to family and society, or has been under deadly threat if stepping beyond the perimeter of their village. However, viewed in context of the now-traditional dystopian Young-Adult set-up, as explained by karen, perhaps it makes more sense.
Which is, unfortunately, where Carey lets us down. The Girl With All the Gifts was fabulous, but it was largely about character growth in an immediately post-apocalyptic world. In Koli, there is slow character growth in a somewhat puzzling and not clearly conceived world. Eventually, pieces of it of the puzzle start to come together, but it’s quite late in the book, and in some ways, it makes even less sense. Our group, for instance, ended up quite puzzled over the time lapse. We ended up thinking it was a couple hundred years lapse, but in a Reddit thread, Carey states, “the books are set in a post-apocalyptic world, at least a century or so after the collapse of our global civilisation, that has reverted to a more or less medieval way of life. Climate breakdown has left the world scarred, but the scientific interventions meant to save it have done even more harm.”
The parts that are interesting are the supporting characters, Ursala and Monono. Monono’s slang speech is particularly entertaining and provides a lot of in-jokes for the reader. I actually enjoyed Monono a great deal, and interestingly, she goes through her own kind of evolution as well. She becomes a strangely empowered little being, providing a solid counterpoint to Koli, and I look forward to what she will do in the future.
“Then what you were feeling was monono aware. The sadness that’s deep down inside beautiful things. The pain and suckiness of everything having a shelf life.”
My sense was that Carey was a ‘pantser’ writer (versus a ‘planner’), and further reading on the thread confirmed it. Koli originally was a ‘Koli and Cup’ magic tale, which explains so well why the tech, the society and the language drift all are so random. I don’t hate it, but the beginning of the story is slow enough that the build of the society nagged at me as I read. What it really needed is some plot to move it along and distract me (along the lines of Station Eleven), but it isn’t until over a third in that tension starts building, and halfway before leaving the village. I can see where this might truly be a trilogy (or one book broken into three?) rather than three installments of a life (like Murderbot).
I think this may have been a time when the company made the book a little more enjoyable. Though I was a bit lukewarm on the book, Monono and my co-readers made it special, so I’ll be going on to the next.