I received a free kindle copy of The Trials of Koli from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, so thank you NetGalley!
The Trials of Koli is the second book in M. R. Carey’s Rampart trilogy, a post-apocalyptic dystopian survival story. In The Book of Koli we met the title character and were introduced to his world. Humans are a dying species living in primitive villages, venerating technology as magical objects and prey to mutated animals, carnivorous trees and cannibals. In The Trials of Koli the action kicks up a notch as Koli, now exiled, braves the perils outside his village to reach London and the mysterious Sword of Albion.
I actually didn’t realize that this was the second book in a trilogy until after I finished reading it. Which just goes to show that Carey does a great job of setting up the characters and post-apocalyptic world. It helps that the narrative is split between Koli and Spinner, his friend and love-interest from the first book. As Koli endures his “trials”, Spinner’s sections keep up abreast of events back home in Mythen Rood, including a plague and her gradual discovery of the ruling family’s secrets. Between them, they hint and refer to the events that led to Koli’s banishment, bringing newbies like me up to speed. That said, I will definitely go back and read Book One as soon as I get the chance.
Koli is on the road in this novel, heading to London where the streets are lined with tech, like an apocalyptic Dick Whittington. Except, instead of a cat he has an AI, a scientist/healer, a droid and a prisoner. This means there’s plenty of action from the killer trees and mutated predators as they walk from Calder Valley up north all the way down to London. They’re also being stalked by soldiers from Half-Ax, a rival settlement ruled by “the Peacemaker”, who’s decided to claim all tech for himself. Given the dangerous world they live in and the massive defensive value of the remaining technology, that’s a pretty obvious power grab and not something Koli or his companions are going to take lying down. It also neatly sets up a future problem for Mythen Rood, given their stockpile of tech.
I loved Carey’s handling of the dual narrative. You just know that knowledge we pick up in one storyline, like the Peacemaker’s edict, will eventually impact the other one, adding suspense as we wait for the hammer to fall. And Carey’s timing is excellent. Just as he’s building up tension in one narrative, he’ll switch to the other. This can be frustrating, but since, more often than not, we’re returning to a pivotal moment, you’re immediately caught up again until the next switch. Many a chapter ends on an ominous sounding pronouncement or cliff hanger, so he knows how to leave us dying for more. And Carey writes action well. I particularly liked a gory fight scene with a monstrous sea-bear.
Of course, the monsters (both flora and fauna) are one of the series’ biggest draws. Carey’s worldbuilding is excellent, particularly the creepy concept of carnivorous and physically active trees. Carey seems to have a thing for killer plants, judging by The Girl With All The Gifts (though, technically, I guess that was fungi?). Anyway, watch out for the choker seeds, that stuff will give you nightmares.
Beyond the trees, the general environmental threat of the weather and seasons add menace and tension to Koli’s quest. This is a world where pretty much everything is out to get you. Koli and his band have to cross forests with the threat of sunlight “waking” the bloodthirsty trees hanging over their heads. There are lots of thoughtful little details, like animals adapting to deadly seed dispersion with hibernation periods. Water from rivers or rain needs to be boiled and sieved for silver thanks to a failed experiment to combat climate change. The killer trees are products of genetic engineering. Presumably, the wildlife is too, though it could have been mutated by radiation left over from the ‘Unfinished War’. There’s also something tragic about Koli discovering the mass destruction of Birmingham during said war and then immediately being attacked by the Half-Ax soldiers. Even dying out, humans are still trying to kill each other.
Because beyond the trees, the weather, the animals and other people, Koli is also up against an even bigger existential threat to the species. Humanity is facing slow extinction thanks to the non-existent “gene pull” in its isolated pockets of survivors. Which, of course, is a direct result of all the other aforementioned man-made disasters. It’s a chilling and timely reminder of the crisis our planet’s currently facing. There’s even a plague, involving social distancing and “quarant time” to bring us fully up to date with Covid.
Language has also evolved, or devolved, depending on how you look at it. Vague knowledge of the distant past lingers – Koli mentions “Parley Men” in London. I enjoyed tracing the group’s journey through “Ingland” using mangled place names, like “Birmagen” and the river “Aven” and “Grand Younion” canal to track their route. Koli’s voice is particularly strong and distinctive, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s great, of course, to have characters with unique voices. There’s a noticeable difference between Koli and Spinner’s narration, which keeps Carey’s writing fresh. But Koli’s narrative is deliberately rougher to evoke his lack of education and ignorance, presumably. Other characters, like Monono the AI and Ursala, Koli’s healer traveling companion, speak standard English. Even Spinner’s voice is a little more refined, since she’s the clever one in Koli’s friendship group. I don’t love using bad grammar and syntax to imply stupidity (Koli’s nicknames include “Koli Witless” and “dopey boy”). I’m not sure which regional accent, if any, Carey was going for either; to me, Koli sounded more American than anything else, which was jarring in the “Inglish” setting. Still, it’s a minor complaint and I got used to it; most readers probably would, though grammar purists might struggle. In any event, the language of the book helps to create an immersive experience as we enter Koli’s world.
And Koli and Spinner are both appealing characters. Koli is sweet and well-meaning. I loved his friendship with Monono; he is very protective of his AI! (And she of him.) The other characters often tease him, but there’s respect there too and he gets to prove himself multiple times. Spinner is more tricky, since her behavior is often manipulative. She’s a bit of a gold digger, but does seem to genuinely care about her husband and Koli. And considering the cut-throat world they live in, I think she can be forgiven for trying to protect herself by socially climbing. Her journey, marrying into the Ramparts and discovering their secrets, is riveting, even in comparison to Koli’s monster-filled, action-packed segments. This is impressive, since it’s almost entirely confined to the village. I won’t give it away, but her final showdown is awesome.
Another interesting character is Cup, Koli and Ursala’s prisoner-turned ally. She is “crossed”, Koli’s word for a trans person. It’s great that even in a novel packed with environmental and human threats to establish, Carey still takes the time to consider how trans people would fare after the apocalypse. Echoes of religion, including the Dead God (bastardized Christianity?), supply religious bigotry, but generally Koli and other characters are matter-of-fact and accepting of Cup’s identity. As Cup enters puberty, body dysphoria becomes more of a problem she has to grapple with and transitioning is discussed, but her storyline and character development is mostly unrelated to this aspect of her life, which is refreshing. She is a badass and even gets to enjoy a sweet, fledgling romance with a cute boy. More importantly, she overcomes internalized-transphobia (from her upbringing) and finds a family in Koli’s group. I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to her in the next book. And to all of them, since the book ends on a cliffhanger.
Because of course it does.
Anyway, I will definitely be returning for Book Three, and I think fans of sci-fi, particularly post-apocalyptic fiction, will find a lot to enjoy.
Alternative Title: Eat Your Heart Out, Shyamalan
Them that came before us wove a great rope to scourge themselves, and like any rope it was twined from many different threads.