The first volume of another post-apocalyptic trilogy seems the last thing we need right now. M. R. Carey’s The Book of Koli, part one of the Rampart Trilogy, is set in a future where climate change and misuse of technology have resulted in the collapse of civilization and a United Kingdom scattered with isolated villages and a dwindling population. One of these settlements, Mythen Rood, survives because it holds a handful of ancient, advanced weapons. Those whose genetic code allows them to use the weapons are known as “Ramparts,” and they defend the village along with the privileges that come with their power. Things begin to change when Koli, son of the village woodsmith, learns that the claim of genetic bonding is a lie and steals his own tech to prove that anyone can be Rampart.
As the coronavirus spread and the real world started feeling apocalyptic, my reading of The Book of Koli slowed. I wanted fiction as an escape, not a visit to a grim, dangerous future that seemed less unlikely every day. But there was something about the character of Koli that kept pulling me back. Koli narrates the book from a vantage point after the events he’s recalling, grown and looking back at his younger self. His voice is rustic but assured, almost like Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow in his quiet self-reflection and honesty, and that voice strings a thread of hope throughout the entire novel. As the novel built steam, it began to feel less and less like it was going to play with the bleakness and despair of something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Ultimately, sticking with this novel paid off. Apart from a few lapses into trope, The Book of Koli was compelling and poignant—the kind of apocalypse we might actually need in the midst of our own.
Koli’s world has fallen, but despite the presence of recognizable name brands amidst the technological wreckage, it’s not yet our world. That helped keep it from hitting too close to home. I don’t think I could, for instance, touch something like Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse or revisit The Road any time soon. In Koli’s world the details of the global catastrophe were more far-fetched than a global pandemic and economic collapse. In this future, climate change necessitated the engineering of trees that could grow in less hospitable conditions, before (à la Jurassic Park) they mutated to become a carnivorous forest covering the landscape. Besides being enjoyably creepy and far-fetched (though who can say what’s far-fetched anymore?), the hungry trees premise is a fascinating take on ecological collapse. Trees are probably our best hope for stemming off global climate catastrophe, but Carey takes that idea and turns it on its head:
I guess I don’t need to tell you how wonderful a thing that would of been for us, to be able to walk through the forest without fear. Trees was our biggest problem, always, and the reason why we lived the way we did. (15)
Since childhood viewings of Little Shop of Horrors and Jayce & the Wheeled Warriors, I’ve been equally enamored and terrified by the idea of plants as a story’s villain, so the hungry trees were for me at first the most compelling aspect of the world-building. But it’s really Koli’s voice that makes the novel work. He starts the novel by recounting his childhood growing up with friends and family in Mythen Rood with a fondness and wistfulness that feels familiar from any good coming-of-age novel. There’s adolescent angst done well, tempered by the wisdom the narrator has picked up in the intervening years. The reader sympathizes with the choices that eventually get him exiled from the village, because Koli as narrator doesn’t excuse himself, even as he explains:
I was young, which maybe isn’t no excuse for being so stupid. Also, the way it come out, I was right. But I don’t see as how that makes it any better. Good success in a bad labour sets you down a dangerous path, so the dead god said one time before they killed him. (120)
For a young boy trying to get across to being a man, everything is tied up with his pride and his pizzle in ways that make the whole job a lot more difficult.
I had got myself into a very dangerous place, for no good reason except that I wanted to be big and important and I wanted to have again the sweetness I had that one time with Spinner. (148)
Because this is the first book of a trilogy, the trope-dictated arc of exile and quest is visible coming a mile off. The narrative builds throughout the first half of the book toward the crisis for which Koli is expelled from Mythen Rood: breaking into Rampart Hold and stealing technology so he can be a Rampart himself and perhaps win back the girl who broke his heart. What he steals, though, turns out to be an advanced music player called a Sony Dreamsleeve, with a soon-to-be-sentient AI who quickly becomes as compelling a character as Koli. (This twist was perfect. Instead of a flame-thrower or energy knife, for all his trouble Koli gets a music player with an AI equally endearing and infuriating. Imagine Mad Max where the hero has no real weapon except a super-smart, sassy iPod.)
Once Koli is outside the village wall though, banished for his theft, the narrative stumbles. There is an excellent confrontation in which Koli inadvertently adds murder to his crimes and steals back his Dreamsleeve, but after that we’re firmly in the realm of post-apocalyptic trope as Koli gets captured by a cannibalistic tribe and taken to their messianic leader. This development seems almost obligatory, a regular stop on the post-apocalyptic wasteland tour, and the second half of the novel is taken up with Koli’s escape. Since he has just spent the first half of the novel getting out of his village, it seems a letdown to spend the second half having to escape from another kind of prison.
This was especially frustrating because the forest is set up as a fantastic danger the entire time Koli is inside the walls of Mythen Rood. Those carnivorous trees are the thing unique to this apocalyptic landscape. His mother in the village was a woodsmith who had to ensure that wood was really dead before she used it to build, yet almost as soon as Koli was outside the walls and into that forest, he’s put into a situation that could have been found in any other post-apocalyptic novel. I would much rather have explored the forest itself and watched Koli learn to survive in it instead of seeing him outsmart a villain that could have come out of any dystopian novel.
On the other hand, this diversion set things up well for the next installment of the trilogy by providing Koli with a hero’s essentials: a band of friends and a quest. The nature of the quest is another post-apocalyptic trope (find the preserved library, arsenal, technology cache, etc.): if Koli and his new friends can find their way to London, they may be able to find technology that has survived the collapse of civilization and unify the isolated villages of England into a viable breeding population.
The bite-sized chapters, often only a few pages long, made the work feel epic, as though there were lots of pauses for breath as we heard the story from an old world-weary narrator, but they also kept the narrative approachable, easy to put down and pick back up again. The irony for the trilogy is that our own period of global uncertainty came in the midst of its publication, which means its printing schedule may be up in the air. I was happy to see the next installment (The Trials of Koli) drop in September despite delays because, tropes aside, Koli and his band are endearing, nuanced characters that I want to follow down this road.
As a narrative, The Book of Koli walks some very familiar, even obligatory, post-apocalyptic paths: the fascination and dread of technology, the cannibalistic savages led by a messianic figure, the quest for a hidden cache of knowledge. But it walks this landscape—there’s really no other word for it—joyfully. Koli’s voice (which invites the reader to wonder what else will befall him in the next two volumes) is touched by sorrow and wisdom but also reflects poignantly on the joy of what it is to have lived a life, to have grown, to have known love and friendship. This is not an apocalypse of despair (yet), and for that right now I’m grateful.