Book review: The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey (Rampart Trilogy #1)

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

In a world connected by jet planes, the internet and worldwide production chains, we take it as a given that getting things done fast and staying connected as we do so will always be a fact of life.

But prolific writer M. R. Carey (The Girl With All the Gifts, Someone Like Me) demonstrates rather alarmingly in his post-apocalyptic novel, The Book of Koli that those kinds of assumptions are bound to die a quick death as the fragile tendrils of civilisation tear and snap under the destructive weight of the end of the world.

The Book of Koli, the first entry in the Rampant Trilogy, which will continue with The Trials of Koli (29 September 2020) and The Fall of Koli (early 2021), brings us a world busted back to a near-medieval society where the world that existed before lives on only as myth and legend, if it is known about at all.

In the UK, humanity lives on in small scattered, dying settlements where inbreeding is a serious issue, beliefs have regressed to a fundamentalist near-pagan level and science and technology are known only to a specialised few and then only within certain, narrow understandings.

Koli Woodsmith, a 15-year-old resident of the 200-strong village of Mythen Rood – old place names have metamorphised so that “road” is now “rood”, Birmingham is “Birmagen” and the UK is known as the YooKay (though there are no nation-states so people see themselves in local terms only) – accepts this world exactly as it is, going through its legalistic rites and rituals along with friends Demar aka Spinner and Haijon, with nary a complaint.

“I got a story to tell you. I’ve been meaning to make a start for a long while now, and this is me doing it, but I’m warning you it might be a bumpy road. I never done nothing like this before, so I got no map, as it were, and I can’t figure how much of what happened to me is worth telling. Monono says I’m like a man trying to cut his hair without a mirror. Too long and you might as well not bother. Too short and you’re probably going to be sorry. And either road, you got to find some way to make the two sides match.” (P. 1)

But Koli is not exactly like the others, a curious young man prone to asking why (a dangerous mindset in any rigidly-controlled society such as Mythen Rood), and when it becomes clear that the world as he understands it may be bigger and wider than anything he imagined, he can’t help but see where this slowly-unfurling revelation will take him.

One place it isn’t supposed to take him, or anywhere in fact, is beyond the closely-guarded walls of the village, outside which lie the violent Shunned men, and plants and animals which, after hundreds of years of freedom and the runaway effects of genetic engineering, are a mortal danger on just about every level.

Koli’s world is a brutalist one that much is clear, and as long as you stay within the walls of the village and don’t question the ruthlessly-enforced way of things, you are “safe”.

But what happens when you are give cause to question the established order with epiphanies that are both thrilling in their scope and terrifying in their possible consequences?

The Book of Koli takes on us the titular protagonist’s transformative journey as he discovers that what you have been told and what you know are not always the full extent of things and that asking questions might be scary but it can also be curiously liberating.

M. R. Carey (image courtesy Hachette UK)

Displaying a brilliant aptitude for storytelling of the highest order and for worldbuilding so realistically designed that it feels like you can reach and touch it, Carey takes us on a journey so beguiling and engaging that reaching its end and knowing you have months to wait for the next instalment, seems almost cruelly unfair.

The Book of Koli works as well as it does because not only does it possess a narrative which perfectly speeds things up and slow them down for maximum effect, but it is full of all kinds of ruminations on the nature of life, society, belief and the way in which humanity mutates and adapts societally in response to the traumatic collapse of civilisation.

Koli’s story resonates so much because we get to see how much people stay the same, with their propensity to take easy or set-in-stone answers over the risk of thinking and acting for themselves, but also the capacity of certain individuals to respond to challenges to what they think they know about the world and their place in it with a willingness to see where it will take them.

Koli may be nervous about stepping away from everything he has ever known and believed but then when the time comes to act on the revelations given to him by Ursala, the travelling doctor with a large amount of old tech at her disposal, he is willing to throw the dice and see where it takes him.

Part of that can be attributed to the rashness of youth but much of the trajectory he is taken on stems from an inability to quiet the parts of him that want to know “why” and can’t sit still and just accept the way things are when he knows they are founded on lies and could be so much different.

“The worst of it was that we didn’t know how long we had got. That lulled us somewhat into thinking it was more than it was. Ursala was cleverer than anyone I ever met, but there was a part of that cleverness that rested in seeing everything there was to see, knowing everything there was to know and only moving when she was sure. But here there were a great many things we couldn’t never be sure of.” (P. 320)

Setting for the scene for what will no doubt be thrilling adventures to come in the final two books of the trilogy, The Book of Koli is a masterful examination of the fact that while civilisation might end and humanity might find themselves flailing for a firm place to land, that the curiosity that has underpinned humanity’s rise and rise up the evolutionary ladder never really goes away.

Many people might seek to suppress such as the technology using Ramparts who rule Mythen Rood with a benign totalitarianism made of unassailable belief and hoarded knowledge, but just like life, the thirst for the new and the different will always out.

What makes Koli such a likable and engaging protagonist is the way that he reacts to these seismic journeys in his life with the same kind of cautious, grounded excitement that anyone might demonstrate.

He is excited beyond words by what all his new awareness of the true order of things could bring but he is also fearful, lost and very alone much of the time, making him a lead character you can readily identify with, a link that enriches the brilliantly and expansively imaginative events of the book.

The Book of Koli is an excitingly original story that shows us once again that while we are often our own worst enemies, we are also, if we are open to it, and not everyone is, the architects of our own salvation, a dichotomy which Carey explores with captivating perfection in a book which is as action-oriented as it is thoughtful and emotionally and lastingly resonant.

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