Reviews: The Book of Koli

The Book of Koli,
M.R. Carey,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 400 pages,
Published April 2020

(cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio with photography by Blake Morrow)

A new book by Mike Carey is always something to look forward to: here we’re even more fortunate as The Book of Koli is the first in a new trilogy sequence by Carey, with The Trials of Koli following in September and The Fall of Koli in March 2021. Koli is a teenage boy, in the small, walled village of Mythen Rood (a nod to Mythago Wood, perhaps? And “rood”, a splinter of the True Cross, a play on the importance of trees and wood in this book?). In many ways this feels like a medieval-era village, but actually it is an unspecified point in the future, and the world is very different from today, in the land of “Ingland” or “Yewkay”.

The deep, dark woods beyond our settlements have disturbed human dreams and nightmares since the dawn of time; they litter our collective folk tales of old, they re-emerge in many modern horror films and books, danger always lurks in there for those who stray from the path. In Koli’s world, while there are dangerous beasts in the wilds (and dangerous rogue people who may be bandits or cannibals or both), it is the forests themselves which present the greatest danger.

Long before his time, the old stories tell of a civilisation that had such knowledge and power as to seem magical to Koli’s simpler, damaged era. But in their arrogance they over-used their knowledge and science, damaging the world around them. So they turned to those same devices and learning to repair the damage, genetically altering the flora and fauna, with catastrophic results. Now the trees are deadly – only certain kinds of true wood can be used (Koli comes from the Woodsmith family of wood-turners), any seeds that land in the village and aren’t clear can cause death and destruction, swallowed chocker seeds result in a horrendous death from within, wood cutters and hunters only venture out on dull, overcast days when the trees are less active, in a reversal of what would have been normal practise of utilising periods of fine weather.

The village is dominated by the Ramparts, the group who can use the remaining, scavenged tech from the fallen world. By a remarkable coincidence – or is it? – one family has become the only ones who ever seem to make the dormant tech “wake” (a coming of age ceremony sees each youngster try to wake a chosen device, those that do become Ramparts, but these days nobody save members of one family seem to be able to manage this). Koli is a teenage ball of longing – for a friend who now seems more interested in a young Rampart, for the ability to work the ancient tech and become a Rampart himself. He will come into knowledge via Ursula, a travelling physician. And knowledge can be dangerous without the wisdom to use it, even more dangerous when it contradicts the established system and privileged groups who do well from it, and it will put a reluctant Koli onto a very different path from that he expected.

The youngster coming of age, discovering new knowledge and awareness before they have the experience to know how to use it safely, finding companions on the way, is something of a staple in storytelling, as is any resulting voyage of discovery and trials on the journey. This is Mike Carey, however, he is well-versed in those classic tropes, and quite deliberately using them, then reshaping them to new ends in some quite delicious ways.

Koli’s world is richly described, from the village to the terrifying woods, with Carey only allowing us small fragments of the history that lead to this dystopian world where humanity has turned nature against itself, so the reader is much like Koli, finding out pieces along the way, and this immerses us into Koli’s world, piquing curiosity not just about what will befall Koli but how this world came to be as it is. As you may expect from Carey, this doesn’t shy away from some quite terrifying and horrific moments, and it populates its world with realistic characters (nobody here is entirely evil or heroic, they are just people with a mix of traits). There’s a strong ecological theme running through the book, and also eco-horror, which reminded me (in the best way) of some of Jeff VanderMeer’s work and the “revenge of nature” cycle of fantasy and horror common in the 1970s. A world turned upside down, once exploited by teeming masses of humans, now the humans are a small group living in fear of the world,.

It’s rich, intriguing, heady and often terrifying work that will draw you deeply into Koli’s world. I can’t wait for the next volume…

This review was originally penned for Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Shoreline of Infinity