Author: Mark Lawrence
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 204 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea
Elle Tea’s Score:
“In January 1986, fifteen-year-old boy-genius Nick Hayes discovers he’s dying. And it isn’t even the strangest thing to happen to him that week.
“Nick and his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are used to living in their imaginations. But when a new girl, Mia, joins the group and reality becomes weirder than the fantasy world they visit in their weekly games, none of them are prepared for what comes next. A strange – yet curiously familiar – man is following Nick, with abilities that just shouldn’t exist. And this man bears a cryptic message: Mia’s in grave danger, though she doesn’t know it yet. She needs Nick’s help – now.
“He finds himself in a race against time to unravel an impossible mystery and save the girl. And all that stands in his way is a probably terminal disease, a knife-wielding maniac, and the laws of physics.”
Elle Tea’s Review
This is probably the most pleased I’ve ever been with a freebie Amazon First Reads book in… well, honestly, probably ever. Not to knock the program itself, and I’ll give mad props to anyone with the juevos to stick the fruits of their labor out into the world for public judgment, but to be blunt, those once-a-month freebies started out pretty well but got progressively more and more awful until I finally stopped even selecting one, despite the free-dollars price tag. But when the most recent notice came out with the free options for April…
If you ignore the words, there’s an honesty in the emotion that fleets across faces in conversation.
Well, I gotta say… the Dungeons & Dragons arc caught my attention. Yep. I’m one of those people. And once I saw that quantum mechanics was a key plot point, as well, well… it was a no-brainer for me.
Lawrence’s first installment of the Impossible Times series starts off strong: the year is 1986, and our protagonist, Nick Hayes, is a fifteen-year-old prep-school wunderkind to whom we are introduced just as his normal routine of school, friends, D&D, and home is disrupted by a bleak and terrifying diagnosis: leukemia. We stick with Nick for the duration of the story, our opinions of his friends based off of his own, our view of the children’s ward and its other patients seen through his eyes, and his illness made real through his description of chemotherapy and its effect on his mind, will, and body.
It’s always a shock, when you’ve been hit by some calamity, to see the world go about its business with perfect indifference.
I’ve never read any of Lawrence’s other novels, but I do have to say that his greatest skill in One Word Kill is his ability to create a protagonist with so encompassing a disease as cancer who is not defined by that disease. Lawrence manages to weave the thread of leukemia throughout the plot while simultaneously keeping Nick a teenager, leaving his disease secondary to the core of who he is. The fact that he has a potentially deadly illness consumes a lot of Nick’s thoughts when he’s left to his own devices and it serves as the driving force for why he pushes so hard to complete the quest that is central to the story – he wants to survive, after all – but his mindset is refreshingly logical: this cancer is what it is, and he’ll do what he has to do until he beats it or simply can’t fight it anymore, and meanwhile he’s just going to live his life. We empathize with Nick, we sympathize with him, but Lawrence never allows his central character to diminish into a sad shell of sorrow, sickness, and sacrifice.
Pain can stay the same while you change around it. And, like a thumb of constant size, what it blocks out depends on how close it gets to you. At arm’s length, a thumb obscures a small fragment of the day. Held close enough to your eye, it can blind you to everything that matters, relegating the world to a periphery.
For so short a novel, the cast of supporting characters is also quite well-developed: Elton, the group’s kung-fu loving DM; John, the witty, attractive, popular son of wealthy parents; Simon, the stereotypical antisocial D&D nerd, and; Mia, a no-nonsense, no-frills goth-chick from a rough neighborhood. Standing counter to our ragtag group of unlikely heroes is our primary antagonist, a power-hungry bully named Ian Rust, whose cruelty and vindictiveness escalate with startling rapidity. Lastly, a new player comes to the board, the mysterious stranger known as Demus, who arrives on the scene just as we get comfortable with Nick and his allies. In only two-hundred pages, Lawrence manages to create realistic impressions of each of these characters; they stand apart, and I was able to easily formulate individual ideas of each one of these peripheral characters, a skill that is often difficult for authors of novels twice this length.
It doesn’t matter what the doctors say, there’s no fatal disease that doesn’t feel contagious to the person sitting next to you.
The story itself starts out quite strong, as I stated earlier, and it continues in this vein until around the 80% mark, where it gradually begins fizzling until, at about the 90% mark, the quantum mechanics arc suddenly hits Plothole Parkway and careens straight into the Kingdom of What the F*** by the end. Now, quantum mechanics is a tricky, mind-boggling theory to begin with, especially when viewed from the time-travel perspective… and the subject of time travel is rarely handled well or believably in movies, television, or novels – with an example of the rare exception being Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline (emphasis on “novel” here – the movie was horrid). But what begins as vaguely mysterious and somewhat scientifically interesting suddenly becomes an easy – but murky and muddled – way to explain an ending that otherwise would have been nearly nonsensical. Lawrence grabs those frayed threads at the very end and ties them back together… but just be aware that there is a moment of WTF as the climax comes to a close.
“The idea of one specific moment, one universal ‘now’ racing along at sixty minutes an hour, slicing through the seconds, spitting the past out behind it and throwing itself into the future… that’s just an artifact of consciousness, something entirely of our own making that the cosmos has no use for.”
As I said earlier, it was the D&D arc that caught my attention to begin with, so it’d be remiss of me to ignore entirely the title of the novel itself. Nick, the resident wizard of the tabletop gaming group, is the wielder of a well-known D&D spell scroll: “Power Word Kill.” This spell is essentially the “Avada Kedavra” (yeah, I’m one of those people, too) of D&D: the caster has the ability to instantly kill a single <100 hit-point creature within range. But I’m curious as to why the title of the novel itself is One Word Kill rather than “Power Word Kill” and can for the moment only guess that it’s either a copyright thing with WotC (in which case I’m still curious as to how Lawrence was able to use two different D&D spells by name as the titles of Books 2 and 3) or it was a choice made for accessibility reasons – maybe the author or his publisher was concerned that the title might be lost on or seem nonsensical to a majority of the populous. I’ve no clue, and it doesn’t change my opinion of the novel in the slightest, but it is a question I was left with at the end.
… we all dance around each other in a kind of terror, too petrified of stepping on each other’s toes to understand that we are at least for a brief time getting to dance and should be enjoying the hell out of it.
All in all, this was a quick and entertaining read. There are some profound concepts and ideas scattered throughout this story, and I’m interested to see where Lawrence takes Nick & Co. in the upcoming installments Limited Wish (May 28th) and Dispel Illusion (TBA).
Truth may often be the first casualty of war, but dignity is definitely the first casualty of disease.
One Word Kill is currently available to read for $1.99 (or free-dollars to Prime members) as part of the Amazon First Reads program; otherwise, it will be published on May 1, 2019.
Elle Tea read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.