MR Carey is probably best known for his post-apocalyptic novel The Girl with All the Gifts, recently made into a film. The Book of Koli is the start of a new series and a different kind of post-apocalypse, although with many aspects that readers of this genre will have encountered before. Set in a Britain hundreds of years after it has been ravaged by war and now beset by deadly genetically modified plants and animals and occasionally ancient rogue technology, the book focuses on one village and its surrounds but sets the scene for a much more expansive series to come.
The Book of Koli is narrated by Koli, a teenager when the book opens, although his first person narration is clearly at some remove from these events. This allows him to both foreshadow major events but also contextualise things that he did not understand at the time he learnt them. The narration is in a slightly idiosyncratic future English that is as much about Koli’s character and village upbringing as it is about the society around him. This style of narration makes the first half of the novel feel like an extended exposition. Interesting or life changing events that do occur are so firmly foreshadowed that they lose any capacity to surprise.
This is down the line YA fare. The narrator is a young man who “comes of age” by discovering the deep secrets that underlie his small society and due to his acknowledged immaturity suffers for it but it leads him to discover greater secrets about the broader world (AJ Betts’ Hive and Rogue did something similar recently). Koli has to go out into the wilderness to find himself and learn these higher truths. One of the elements that sets this apart is Koli’s Tinkerbell – a sparky, snarky AI in an ancient music player that he steals and manages to get working, one of the events that precipitates his fall. Monono is an AI based on a Japanese pop star, and after an upgrade becomes as much a character as Koli, and definitely more interesting to spend time with. The rest of the characters feel like Post-apocalyptic/YA staples – including the unrequited love interest, the tough self-interested village leader who sees herself as the line against chaos, the crazy messiah with eyes tattooed all over his body, and the travelling sage who inadvertently sets Koli off on his quest.
This style of post-apocalyptic Britain has started to become a little ubiquitous. Recently we have had Nick Clark Windo’s The Feed, CA Fletcher’s A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Groff and even thriller and historical fiction writer Robert Harris has weighed into this subgenre with The Second Sleep. All of these feature verdant British landscapes (although in this case they are a little deadlier), disconnected villages usually ruled by secrets, and some still working “ancient” technology. The second half of The Book of Koli pivots around another post-apocalyptic staple – the crazy messianic cult.
There is an audience, particularly the Young Adult audience, that is continually hungry for these types of post-apocalyptic tales and Carey knows how to deliver. In The Book of Koli he shows a tantalising sliver of a much bigger world and ends the book with that world beckoning. And while he draws heavily on a well established tradition of particularly British post-apocalyptic tales, he adds his own twist to many of the common tropes. Which makes this first book feel like an overlong prologue, a lengthy scene setting before the real action can begin, but one with enough hooks to bring interested readers back for the next instalment.