One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence
Caution: review may contain spoilers.
In Mark Lawrence’s gradual migration away from the world and characters of his debut novel Prince of Thorns, One Word Kill represents the greatest step so far. We find ourselves in neither the fantastic ice-threatened world of Abeth, nor the magically enhanced post-apocalyptic future Earth of the Broken Empire and the Red Queen’s War. We are instead on more contemporary ground – South London in the 1980s – though Lawrence’s gift for sowing peril and dilemma has bled through into that otherwise familiar milieu. Maybe some readers won’t have lived through such a place and time – well, you should have. After the conflicted 70s that couldn’t decide whether to be brash or beige, punk or glam, the 80s were undeniably the best decade ever.
One Word Kill has some elements of a Young Adult story, like John Green’s Looking for Alaska (which I have read) or The Fault in Our Stars (which I have heard a bit about). It focuses on the first person point of view of one teenage boy – Nick Carter – and his companionship with his differently geeky male friends and the solitary girl who infiltrates their role-playing game gatherings. And this is role-playing games 80s style! With polyhedral dice, character sheets, handbooks and dungeon master’s screens. For those who have come anew to real RPG – with painted figurines and everything – I can only say we were there first (along with Mark Barrowcliffe, author of “The Elfish Gene”). For those who have only encountered RPGs through the medium of a TV screen and a console, think maybe of the TV show Stranger Things but with older teenagers – and all that entails.
In One Word Kill (as in Stranger Things) a real adventure intrudes and intertwines with the imaginary world in which Nick and his friends strive to lose themselves and their woes. And they have plenty of woes. Not least the fact that Nick is dying – diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. The schoolwork in which he was coasting – concealing his mathematical talent like a Ferrari ambling at low throttle through rush hour traffic – suddenly seems even less relevant. Each day differently precious, life itself suddenly fragile.
Unlike Mark Lawrence’s previous oeuvre, there is no magic in One Word Kill, save the kind decided by the roll of a d20 and scored off in reduced health against a character sheet or a wandering monster. For this is a book where the fantasy stays fictional and the fiction is driven by science. Lawrence dips his readers into quantum mechanics and how the inherent craziness of that part of physics spews out as a by-product the “many worlds” hypothesis: this idea that at key junctures, or indeed every juncture, the universe splits into parallel worlds – different timelines that branch out along the two (or more) alternative outcomes to every event. For example, in our universe the UK voted for Brexit, but there is another parallel universe where the vote went the other way (and I know which one I’d be happiest living in).
So too are there different worlds, different futures, available to Nick – one in which he survives the leukemia, and many more in which he does not. A stranger appears offering Nick the chance to live in a version of the world where he survives the disease – provided he makes the correct choices. But at what cost to his friends and other aspects of his future? And why does the stranger have such an interest in the girl Nick has only just met?
What is familiar?
This is the ninth novel by Mark Lawrence that I have read and the consistent standout feature of all of them has been the quality of writing. Lawrence’s prose is a joy to read with its sharp pithy observations on what it is to be a human in adversity. Nick’s condition necessitates several hospital trips, inherently grim clinical experiences which Lawrence conveys with an unfussy but expert eye.
The pain… kept lifting me from the shallow pit of my dreams.
Lawrence also captures the desperate search for escape from disease through a connection with others in one of Nick’s fellow oncology ward inmates.
She kept talking as I followed Mother out, as if the conversation were a rope and if she could only keep it unbroken I would be held by it, unable to leave.
In One Word Kill, Lawrence returns to the intimacy of first person point of view that we saw in his first six books. The reader rides in Nick’s head just as convincingly and enthrallingly as we once rode with Jorg Ancrath or Jalan Kendeth – though Nick, being neither a sociopath nor an amoral coward, should be more relatable than his predecessor protagonists.
However, Lawrence also weaves in to the narrative the quality of companionship that lifted Nona through the trials of Red and Grey Sister. This is a book about friends standing by, with and for friends, whatever the sacrifice.
What is new?
One Word Kill is a more significant perturbation from Lawrence’s previous books. Its link to the world of fantasy is preserved only through the window of the role-playing games that Nick and his friends indulge in, while the plot is driven by devices of science fiction. Even then the science fiction remains relatively low key, a backdrop that allows engaging characters and quality writing to take centre stage.
There are more contemporary anchors on which to pin the reader’s experience. Through Nick’s eyes we see again the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, through his ears we hear of the Brixton riots, and we visit more familiar (for me at least) locations in South London than we did in the drowned world of the Broken Empire.
There are also the contemporary challenges and opportunities. For example, the gut-wrenching male adolescent fear of dancing, the seeming impossibility of following a beat in any form of music, while at the same time hankering after the chance of a slow dance, those moments of closeness and intimacy that were the height of male ambition – or indeed comprehension – in a more innocent pre-internet age.
What it left me thinking about
His own medical prognosis, together with the promises and demands of the stranger haunting his footsteps, force Nick into some reflections on the nature of self and existence. We are all the product of our experience as recorded in our (sometimes unreliable) memories. Those experiences have conditioned our behaviours and expectations, heavily moderating the influence of mere DNA to make us definably us. Without those memories we would be a fraction, a ghost of ourselves – which is perhaps the greatest cruelty of illnesses like Alzheimer’s.
But at the same time, one could ask: are we really merely the memories? There is in the TV series Altered Carbon the notion that we can be reincarnated into different bodies by having our memories downloaded and installed into a fresh physical form – a “restore from backup,” if you like. But is such a restoration really the preservation of self or the making of a copy?
In a similar vein, if all of life’s choices involve us splitting and progressing down different timelines, how far should we care about the timelines our version of self doesn’t follow? The alternative “me”s that we surely never meet?
I recently read David Gemmell’s Legend – which, incidentally, was written around the same time that One Word Kill is set – and learnt that Gemmell’s impulse to write his debut novel was born out of a potential terminal cancer diagnosis. He wrote the first draft while waiting to hear if he would survive or not and kept two endings to the book in mind depending on whether his own outcome was positive or not. In Legend too there are the mysterious monks, The Thirty, led by Serbitar, who can glimpse into the future, following many potential timelines yet with limited power to change which one they themselves end up following.
The reflections on choice and mortality that permeate Legend also test Nick in One Word Kill. Nick, pinned on the cusp of his own medical crisis, shares Gemmell’s blunt range of possible futures, but must ask if – in his choices – he is saving his own future, or being trapped by it.
And the final takeaway?
This is a book about young people, so maybe it is a book for young people. But then it is also a book about the 80s, so maybe it is a book for people who were young in the 80s. Then again, it’s also a book about friendships formed and tested – so really, it’s a book for everyone.
In One Word Kill, Lawrence grabs familiar science fiction conventions by the tail and gives them his own distinctive and brilliantly written twists. This is a book full of well-crafted, credible characters whom the reader quickly cares about; who are confronting life-threatening dilemmas and facing villains the reader will be desperate to see defeated. In short, it’s an enthralling tale about people challenged by dire adversity, and isn’t that at the heart of every great story?
Photo credit: Agnes Meszaros