Author: Mark Lawrence
Title: One Word Kill
One Word Kill, the first installment in the Impossible Times sequence and Lawrence’s first foray into a SF territory, came on the heels of his success with Book of Ancestor trilogy. The book met with enthusiastic reviews and has been recommended by many fellow bloggers – Mogsy, Aaron and Drew, to name just a few. As I haven’t read anything by Lawrence, One Word Kill was suggested to me as a good entry point – and by now I can firmly attest to the popular conviction that Lawrence knows how to write. His writing skills are a thing to behold, especially in such a short novel as One Word Kill, where every word counts. It’s a mark of professionalism to spin an intriguing story, build a convincing world and create compelling characters within a couple hundred pages. As much as I would love to wholeheartedly recommend the book, however, I can’t. To borrow Bookstooge’s latest food metaphor, One Word Kill reminded me mostly of a solid fast food meal: it had all the necessary ingredients, maybe even chosen with care for their environmental impact and health benefits, it was very professionally made and quite substantial, but by no means was it a masterpiece or a sensory delight.
Firstly, I was thrown by the strong Stranger Things vibe. At times One Word Kill resembled nothing more than a highly ambitious attempt at Stranger Things fan fiction – from the nostalgic 80’s setting to the four-teenage-friends-plus-a-girl ensemble, to the D&D games as an important plot device. And as much as I enjoy Stranger Things, I didn’t really feel a need to read about it. Yes, the main characters are different, and their story is different, yet the Stranger Things influence runs strong throughout the whole book.
Then came the time travel twist. Yes, Lawrence did his homework and presented a neat exposition of the multiverse theory and the possibility of time travel in infinite realities branching out from every decision. While I’d jadedly argue that Pratchett’s explanation under the lovely title Trousers of Time is so much more fun…
…I’d still be all aboard with Lawrence’s application – if not for Ethan Siegel’s explanation of the phenomenon, which can be found here. Interestingly, currently the popular theories on time travel rather seem to indicate that the universe we’d land in would not be the one from which we started out in the first place, exactly because of the bifurcating time lines. And so, because my dreams had been shattered these few years ago when I read that :P, I couldn’t really buy into what Lawrence presented as a viable, for-real-real option – especially because the rest of his lovingly constructed world seemed like a reminiscence and not something entirely imagined.
Lastly, the characters. I could not shake the feeling that the main protagonist was in fact a character perfectly depicting how a 40-something would remember himself as a teenager those few decades past. Nick just didn’t feel like a fifteen-year-old would, mathematical genius or not. It wasn’t just a precocity characterizing someone particularly gifted, even with a cancer undoubtedly changing the optic; the vocabulary Nick used and the unusually introspective remarks he was making brought to my mind someone much older than 15. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy his point of view; only that the difference between my expectations and what One Word Kill was giving me in this regard was big enough to keep me firmly distanced from the world so carefully built by Lawrence.
While Nick and Mia are given a lot of book time and their development forms the emotional backbone of the book, the rest of characters sadly did not have that privilege. Sadly, because I would like to read more about Simon and Elton and John, yet it is completely understandable both from the perspective of room given by a novel 200-odd pages-long, and from the assumed perspective of a naturally self-absorbed teenager who narrates it. Indeed, it felt quite right: Nick’s friends were the constant, most important element of his life. What I did find lacking, however, were the villains of the piece – especially Rust, whose description as someone who “doesn’t know where to stop” and ends up murdering people with cold blood because he enjoys it, while still being a fifteen-year-old recently expelled from a posh school, seemed forced and unreal. While Davies was still within the borders as a violent, slightly misguided bully, Rust was so blown out of proportion as the book’s psycho that he almost seemed like an imagined threat – and hence, not one to treat seriously.
Add to it the MacGuffin problem of Motorola chip necessary to power a memory retention/erase device. That one was really hard to get on board with, and so felt more as a regrettably necessary prop than a crucial element of the plot – a bunch of teenagers breaking and entering into a high-tech Motorola facility and stealing a prototype worth millions was indeed a plot worth the eighties, like the referenced War Games movie, but it seemed out of sync with the rather realistic rest of the worldbuilding, cancer and drugs, posh British schools and all. Yes, I know, a bit of readers’ goodwill is necessary for most of fantasy/SF plots to work. Yet my goodwill was slowly eroding as the elements kept adding up – the final straw might have been the D&D device of foretelling the events of the plot through the events of the game. The whole narrative felt increasingly contrived, and as a result I approached the novel’s ending more with relief that it ends than any tension involved in the resolution. Don’t get me wrong; I quite enjoyed it, as I enjoy a good fast food wrap from time to time. It was tasty, it was quick, most importantly, it was painless. No indigestion, no regrets, and I even might reach for another one of those in the foreseeable future 😉 It was ok. Just ok. Not spectacular :P.