Book Review: One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Impossible Times
Publisher: 47North (May 1, 2019)
Length: 204 pages
Having only read Mark Lawrence’s fantasy before this point, I had thought The Book of the Ancestor was a departure for him, but One Word Kill was truly an entirely different beast. It was also a novel I inhaled in about two sittings. Despite it being a world apart from the kinds of books the author is generally known for, and the fact it has time traveling elements (which we all know can be tricky), this was a surprisingly easy and entertaining read.
The story takes place in the 1980s, following 15-year-old protagonist Nick Hayes and his small group of friends who get together every week for their role-playing sessions of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, other than the love for the game, the teenagers have very little in common between them. First aside from Nick, there’s Elton, a funny guy and a healthy skeptic, who as the game master can always be counted on to bring the geeky humor and banter. Then there’s Simon, an awkward and quiet kid who can sometimes let his emotions get the better of him. Next is John, who is rich, handsome and charming, and even though he only hangs out with his “nerdy” friends in secret, deep down the cocky teenager has a heart of gold. And finally, there’s Mia, the newest member of the group and the only girl. Mia has a complicated past, but she’s cool, she’s smart, and in spite of himself, Nick finds himself completely smitten.
But at the beginning of the book, Nick receives the devastating news that he has terminal cancer, and the consequences and the events following his diagnosis bring them together in solidarity in a way that no one could have possibly imagined. For one thing, shortly after Nick finds out he is dying, he discovers that he is being followed by a stranger, who nonetheless feels familiar to him in a way he can’t explain. This mysterious man, who calls himself Demus, claims to know the future, and that in order to survive the cancer and save his friend Mia from grave danger, Nick and his friends must help him with an extremely difficult and extremely top secret mission—like, we’re talking James Bond spy-level kind of shit. And yet, although everything Demus says sounds crazy, Nick is inclined to believe him. For one thing, the man somehow knows things, things that shouldn’t be possible to know, and if there’s a chance he can beat the cancer, or any chance he can also save Mia from certain death, Nick knows that he has to try.
If you’ve ever taken a gander at Mark Lawrence’s author profile, you probably already know he’s a crazy smart guy—a literal rocket scientist—and he’s also had experience dealing with technology that requires top level government secret clearance. So, I think it’s relatively safe to say he knows his stuff. Perhaps that’s also why, despite all the wild and far out WTFery going on in this book, One World Kill still somehow managed to feel grounded and convincing. The plot and its ideas are also relatively easy to follow, which in my experience isn’t always the case when it comes to time travel stories and the reason why so many can be hit or miss for me. Being geared towards YA though, One World Kill contains all the strangeness and complexity of the time travel subgenre but still comes across very accessible and reader-friendly, a testament to Lawrence’s ability to balance his storytelling and to know the audience he’s writing for.
Due to the setting and the camaraderie between the protagonist and his group of friends, it’s also perhaps inevitable that parallels are drawn to certain books by Stephen King, or to movies and TV shows like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Stranger Things. Indeed, there’s definitely this nostalgic and almost magical aura surrounding One Word Kill, a sense that we are only limited by what we can imagine. As well, this novel doesn’t feel like any time travel story I’ve read before, and honestly, I think it’s because Lawrence never allows the tech and science-y bits to gain the foreground, focusing instead on the human aspects, i.e. the lives of Nick and his friends. As a result, this story plays out like a very personal drama, to the point where pigeonholing it into sci-fi, time travel, or into any kind of category almost feels disingenuous, cheapening the experience. This is because more than anything else, this one’s about the characters, and it makes you care about their wants and dreams.
All told, One Word Kill was very different from what I am used to from the author, but it is now up there with some of my favorites from him. Despite its short length and YA vibes, this book isn’t just all about geeky fun and secret heist action, for it is also a character-first story that packs an emotional punch, combining cheerful sweetness and poignant feeling in equal measure. If this is what we can expect from the next installment, it’s going to be awesome.