Orbit | 2018 (24 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
Theo works in the Criminal Audit Office. It’s his job to decide what a crime is worth, how much a murderer, rapist, thief, embezzler (the worst of crimes) should be charged to atone for his or her crime. Every life has a value, although for many that value is very little indeed, and that life can be paid for – if you have enough money to pay for it. And that is by no means everybody. The majority of people can’t pay for their crimes, even when they’re no real crimes at all, merely a misdemeanour against the financial security of the state. Or, to put it more precisely, against the Company. Because in these days the state is run as a business and nothing, absolutely nothing, is free. The poor who can’t pay are sold into slavery.
Theo gets through life by keeping his head down, seeking obscurity, doing his job well but not too well, never noticeable. But this all changes when he is approached by an ex-lover, Dani, who confides in him that Lucy, her daughter – his daughter – is missing, stolen away by the Company. She begs him to find Lucy. But within no time at all Dani is brutally murdered, by an assassin who pays her fee and walks away. Theo’s pursuit of the truth will take him to the heart of this dystopian world, and it will raise every kind of question about Theo’s own identity and past.
Claire North is one of the most original writers of speculative and science fiction around today. Each of her books is very different from the one that went before and each has so much to say about human nature and the difficulties challenging its survival. 84K is no different. This horrifying near future world is still recognisably our own – this is the way in which it could develop, if there were no Theos to oppose it. This is Capitalism run wild and, as you’d expect, it’s the poor who suffer. And they suffer horribly. This is a novel full of warning.
I did find the structure and style challenging. The narrative hops back and forth between at least three different periods of Theo’s life and we’re given very little notice. This distanced me from Theo. I couldn’t warm to a character that I didn’t really understand and I don’t think I ever got to the bottom of what he is about. There were lots of fascinating and charismatic glimpses but then we were off somewhere else. Lots of characters come and go and it can be difficult to keep track of them. Again, I would be immersed in one thread of life and then I’d be off to another. I did, however, really enjoy Lady Helen. This difficulty, for me, was compounded by the style of the prose. It’s very fragmented, it feels experimental. Sentences are left unfinished, thoughts abandoned, it’s time to move on. It’s undoubtedly clever and serves as a useful tool to reflect the state of Theo’s mind, but I found it tiring to read. This may just mean that I’m less patient as a reader than I should be!
However, the worldbuilding is fascinating. I loved the descriptions of the different regions of England, each of which needs some kind of entry permit. The Cotswolds are particularly difficult to get into. Others are almost no-go areas. There is no area of life that isn’t controlled by Company regulations and costings. The more I learned, the more I wanted to hear. This is engrossing and it’s backed up by the extraordinary level of detail.
84K is hugely ambitious and, at times, quite beautifully bewitching. Claire North wields such power with her words. While this isn’t my favourite of her novels – I loved especially The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hope – there is much here to enthral the reader. I will always look forward to Claire North’s books. She is staggeringly talented. She always challenges me and, while I wasn’t quite up to the challenge this time, I cannot wait to see what future wonders she has in store for us.