Book Review: The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Rampart Trilogy
Publisher: Orbit (April 14, 2020)
Length: 416 pages
Oh, hype raises its ugly head once again. As you know, I’m big a fan of M.R. Carey and I was very excited to read The Book of Koli, the first volume of his new dystopian series called The Rampart Trilogy. From its description though, I already knew it was going to be quite different from his previous work that I’ve enjoyed. And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? Different can mean good or bad things; you never know what you might get.
The Book of Koli transports readers into the far-flung future, where our young protagonist Koli Woodsmith lives in a village called Mythen Rood. It is a bleak setting, filled with hardship and hidden dangers, most of them caused by the hostile fauna and flora. The plant life here has evolved to consume flesh, for example, and for Koli and his family, who are sawmill workers, this means they must be extra careful to only harvest and build with wood that is completely dead.
As the story opens, Koli has just turned fifteen, the age when all children must partake in a rite of passage that tests for their ability to awaken the treasured pieces of technology kept by the people of Mythen Rood. If they pass, they become leaders called Ramparts that are granted the responsibility to use tech to protect their village. It’s an honor Koli desperately wants, not only because he hopes for more out of life, but also because there’s a girl he’s seriously crushing on, and being a Rampart would definitely help him catch her attention.
But of course, nothing ends up going the way Koli wanted. After failing his test, our distraught protagonist sets off on his own, but not before swiping a mysterious piece of tech that turns out to be so much more than he realized, opening his eyes to a whole new world of knowledge.
So first, let’s talk about my mixed feelings for this book. It wasn’t bad by any means, and yet I was still disappointed, not having enjoyed it as much I’d hoped. The Book of Koli was my fifth novel by Carey, and it’s my least favorite by far, for a couple of reasons. I mentioned how it feels different from the author’s books, and certainly the strange dystopian setting along with the jarring narrative voice had a role to play in this. However, these are just surface level examples of “different,” most of which I did not mind at all. No, in truth, what let me down had more to do with the banality of the story’s overall structure and its uneven pacing, neither of which were issues I expected to encounter from the creative mind who brought us such brilliantly imaginative and suspenseful works such as The Girl With All The Gifts.
The characters, for example. I liked them…for the most part. Ironically, Koli was probably one of the least interesting, despite being the star of the show. His story arc begins like any number of YA dystopians do—an idealistic teenager with ambitions bigger than himself or his village, who must pass a ritualistic test in order to realize all of his life’s dreams. But of course, after the inevitable failure comes, instead of succumbing to defeat, our hero stumbles upon an earth-shattering secret, one that will have major consequences for the future of the world unless he undertakes this all-important journey. Sorry, but YAWN. Is it any wonder the book got leaps and bound better once other characters like Ursala and Monono were introduced? I’ll let you discover why for yourself, but I was just glad we had more compelling personalities along for this ride, because Koli and I were really not making a connection.
I also liked the world-building. In fact, that might be the one aspect with which I could find little fault, because I love the idea of killer trees and hostile wildlife. Yes, I know it’s become a popular trope in recent years, but I’ve always been a sucker for clever ways of incorporating biological concepts into SFF, which isn’t new for the author. The magic and the tech element was also very cool, and it’s a shame I can’t go into the reasons why because that would spoil too much. I do wish we’d gotten the opportunity to learn more though, because there were only a few places that touched upon the history and lore of the world. I feel like it could have added a special quality of a bit of uniqueness to an otherwise run-of-the-mill bleak dystopian setting.
Was I expecting too much? Probably. I was surprised to find the plot so formulaic, the themes and ideas so recycled and clichéd, but I do have to wonder: would I have been so critical if this had been by another author, someone whose work I was not as familiar with or whose previous books I didn’t hold in such high esteem? Regardless, I’ve decided to give this series another chance to win me over; I’ll most likely pick up the second book and continue Koli’s adventure. After all, there are clear signs that many of the issues I had with this one may improve, such as pacing and character development. But one thing I know for sure, I’ll definitely keep my hype in check next time.