Book Review: The Book of Koli, by M.R. Carey

Review time for the new novel from M. R. Carey, The Book of Koli, part one of the Rampart Trilogy. How does it measure up to his previous work? Read on to find out! This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received.

This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

From the Waterstones product page:
Everything that lives hates us…

Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognisable landscape. A place where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, the Shunned men will.

Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He believes the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture too far beyond the walls.

He’s wrong.

Set in an England that’s practically unrecognisable to us, The Book of Koli is the first in a new trilogy from M. R. Carey, author of The Girl with All the Gifts. The world has been ravaged by human meddling, a potential last roll of the dice in the fight against climate change backfiring catastrophically and resulting in trees and plants that actively hunt humanity. To venture outside those few settlements that still stand is to set oneself against a hostile world where those creatures and men as can survive make for deadly foes. Koli, our narrator, has grown up in one of these settlements in the north of England, and we are treated to a detailed explanation of what life is like for him and his fellow villagers. Much of the first half of the book is concerned with the power structure of the settlement, the relationships between Koli and the various inhabitants, and general world building. We see the importance of those pieces of technology which still function, whose wielders are revered and hold court over the rest of the settlement, taking up the mantle of “Rampart” (this being book one of The Rampart Trilogy). It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the second half is more focused on the world outside the settlement – Koli says as much in the first couple of pages or so – and the scenes in the wider world come with a constant feeling of tension because of everything we’ve been told about how dangerous the environment is.

This environment is a unique one, as settings go. It’s almost like an alien world in some respects, with humanity eking out an existence in outposts across it. The trees shift to trap creatures between their trunks, sustaining themselves on the lifeblood of living beings. Choker seeds land on skin, burrowing beneath it in seconds to extract nutrients in grisly fashion. Wild dogs and giant rats stalk the land, as well as more exotic, deadlier creatures.

If you go down to the woods today… look, just don’t, alright?

On top of the lethal flora and fauna, there is the passage of time, with the presumed centuries since the collapse of civilisation resulting in a collective forgetfulness. Our world, the world that was, is made strange, with some of the most mundane and everyday parts of it appearing here as bizarre relics of a time long since passed, abandoned in the wilderness to be wondered at by our descendants. I found I very much looked forward to Koli coming across such relics and trying to puzzle out what they were and how they worked. He is awed by the power we seemed to be in possession of pre-collapse, which is understandable given the backward step we have taken as a species in the book. His reverence for pieces of technology is matched by his fellow villagers, as they are unable to manufacture any more and rely on them for the defence of their settlement. The items wielded by the Ramparts in particular are advanced even by our current standards, but not unbelievably so, implying our apocalypse is likely due this century. I appreciate that this might not be the cheeriest thought right now, but this is escapist, dystopian fiction at its finest, I promise!

Apart from various asides, most of the narrative is told in Koli’s charming and unique voice. Showing typical attention to detail, Carey has thought of everything, including what the humans of this distant future might sound like by this point. Language, of course, would normally evolve through daily usage, before being codified formally in dictionaries and the like. In Koli’s world, the language is allowed to run as rampant as the deadly plant life, with not an etymologist in sight. A situation that some would no doubt find repellent, abhorrent, unnatural or horrifying (thanks, Roget!). I’m not talking Riddley Walker levels of language devolution here, so if that’s a potential concern for anybody, don’t worry. Koli’s narration is unfussy and earnest, with the peculiarities of his language (“onliest” being my favourite) making him instantly likeable and innocent. Working out what some of the words he uses were originally is quite rewarding on the rare occasion when it’s not instantly obvious, and the place names (which do correspond with real English ones) are guaranteed to elicit a smile every time. Swapped verb forms lend him a matter of fact, bumpkin-like tone, and there’s a real purity to the emotions and passions he conveys to us because of this. Language is not the barrier it could have been here; far from it, in fact. Whilst the world and story are of course engaging and exciting, it’s Koli’s narration that really made me fall in love with this book. From the first page, I knew I was going to enjoy the journey I was taken on by his words, not just because they promised adventure and excitement but because I wanted to hear what he had to say and how he said it. As a character, he is utterly believable, and as a narrator, inimitable.

As an avowed fan of Carey’s work since I read the first volume of Lucifer, I was looking forward to The Book of Koli. I’m happy to say that not only does it turn out to not disappoint, it stands alongside his best work, and therefore alongside the best in the genre. This is a practically perfect blend of heart, imagination and technique, and it almost feels like we’re being spoiled by being told there’s more to come. I can’t wait.

The Book of Koli, part one of the Rampart Trilogy, is out now, published by Orbit. You can order your copy through this affiliate link. Thanks to Charlotte Render for spookifying my tree photograph – check out her bookstagram, the wonderfully named Sound of a Thousand Books, here. It’s very pretty!

One thought on “Book Review: The Book of Koli, by M.R. Carey

  1. […] If you liked The Book of Koli, the chances are very good that you’ll like Trials, and will be left wanting more by its end. Good news, then, that The Fall of Koli is expected to be released in March of next year. In the meantime, you can order a copy of The Trials of Koli here. If you’re somehow still on the fence about this fantastic series, you can read my review of the first book here. […]

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