One Word Kill is the start of a new science-fiction series from Mark Lawrence, whose other series I’ve always found very enjoyable. That meant this book landed with the weight of expectation behind it. I’m bound to say that those expectations were met. This is a book about a lot of things; pain, death, growing up. The things you choose to keep, and those you leave behind. It’s about being a teenager, and the intensity of feeling that entails, and about chosen families, and those you’re born into. It’s about living in the London of the eighties, about being better, about recognising evil and stepping up to fight it.
It’s a book about a lot of things. Many of them contradictory, all of them fascinating.
The centre-point for this whirlpool is Nick. Nick is a geek before I’s cool. A smart kid, just trying to get through the day without being bullied, and doing so with the help of his friends. Nick is also, somewhat inconveniently for him, dying. The voice of the story is Nick’s, and it’s one which is both fierce and exhausted, unsure of itself and uncertain of its decisions. There’s a fragiliy there which I suspect many readers will recognise from their own youth, fronted by a black irony at the state of the world, and a determination not to appear fragile which will…also, probably be familiar. In any case, this is top-notch character work. As Nick fights against the disease slowly eating him alive, you can feel the tension in his bones, the mordant humour overlaying a rising realisation of how own mortality. The persistence in refusing to break down in front of his friends is so sharp I could almost taste it. Nick is, with all the prideful flaws of adolescence, and all its joys, a thoroughly believable, entirely human character.
In this he’s helped by being surrounded with an absolutely scintillating ensemble cast. Nick’s posse is a wonderful agglomeration of socially awkward spods with serious intellectual focus. They’re smart enough to know people don’t like them, and to have organised coping strategies for it. These are less enlightened times, as well, and there are undercurrents here of facing the sort of prejudice which would be unacceptable these days. In any event, the awkward squad are funny, naïve, charming – and the loyalty which binds them to Nick, and to each other, is strong enough you can almost see it flickering in the air as they talk.
Which they do quite a lot. They get together to play Dungeons and Dragons, and these gatherings are the social core of the story. There’s a lot of wizards, barbarians, and orc slaying going on. But it’s heartwarming in its portrayal of outsiders who just want to be together and have a good time, and behind the rush of nostalgia for those of us who spent our weekends the same way, here’s a genuine emotional depth and warmth that makes you smile as you turn the pages.
On a similar note, the villains are wonderfully repulsive, the sort of bullies and sociopaths who infest every school and every neighbourhood. As Nick and his friends confront their adversaries, it’s almost possible to feel the terror they feel, realising that the enemy has no moral compunctions, and is more than happy to give them a good kicking, and maybe something else. These antagonists are individuals radiating the kind of electrically unhinged danger or acceptance of violence that will eventually leave them in jail; but Nick and his friends need to decide if they’re willing to be the ones broken during the process. I really do want to shout out on this one – these are spot on portrayals of lost teens and people with something a little broken inside them, the one possibly blending into the other. They are Not Nice, and I felt an escalating tension and sense of danger on every page in which they appeared. Even that is nostalgic, in its way – and again, absolutely pitch perfect, a portrayal of unsullied malevolence which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and the pages go by faster in the hope you’ll see what happens next.
Speaking of nostalgia, the world-building is top notch. London in the eighties was sitting on the cusp of something, a bright-lights city where it was possible to make a lot of money very quickly, and equally, where social equality and social cohesion were taking second place to the acquisition of cold, hard cash. The story takes place throughout London – on packed, sweltering Tube trains, along the banks of urban rivers. In decaying tower blocks, where the delicate scent of urine mixes with despair. It’s cold a lot fo the time, rains a lot of the time, and often feels like a grey morass. The text doesn’t shy away from that vision, embraces it, gives us a London which makes the bones ache and the pocket lighter – but it shows off the heart, as well. There’s the neighbours in the towers, who will look out for each other even while they turn a blind eye to the dealers on the stairwell; there’s the streets that will come out in support of their neighbours, too. There’s the mist rising off the parks and making the city into a liminal space every morning. And there’s the scalpel blade of technology, of skyscrapers and research labs pushing the city into the future.
All of it is here, between the lines or on the page, and it makes the space in which Nick walks feel dynamic and alive. Here, the idea of London in that one moment is captured on the page, and it feels real, from the tops of the towers down to the much clogging the drains. If the characterisation is top-notch, the world-building, in constructing that recognisable place, is superb.
So, it’s got some cracking characters, ones you’ll love and ones you’ll love to hate. But what about the story?
As usual, no spoilers. But I’ll say this It works. In part it’s a coming of age, as Nick tries to deal with his own imminent mortality, and with the struggles he’s having with his friends, and even (horrors), romantically. But it’s also got a personal dimension, as Nick and the gang work to save, if not the world, at least themselves – while figuring out who exactly they are. There’s some wonderful dialogue, which made me chuckle at its teen awkwardness in one breath and wrung my heart at its genuine, raw emotion in the next. It’s a story which opens strongly, and one which won’t let you go. It’s a story about making hard choices, and about growing up. It’s a story about deciding who you are, or want to be. And it’s an absolutely cracking read, for that. I genuinely couldn’t put it down once I started, and if the characters and the world helped build that, the need to see what happened next, the way the story pulled me into the world, the way I was gripped by every page – that surely put the capstone on it.
This is, to be simple about it, a really enjoyable, clever work of science fiction, which invites you to wrestle with some big ideas alongside a compelling and personal story. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.