The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North

I just finished reading this, and though it was very clever, and a fresh idea and extremely well written with beautiful prose, identifiable characters and vivid emotions and exciting action, it was also incredibly irritating.

It is another iteration of the timeless story of the villain trying to accomplish something, and the hero trying to stop it. This may sound trivial to you–of course it should be that way, it is the villain’s job to do, and the hero’s job to impede–it is so ingrained in fiction that it’s hard to imagine any other formula. But I’m sick of it. I’m sick of rooting against the character trying to accomplish something, and cheering for the character trying to keep the status quo. It was even more irritating in the case of this book because the story was so good, so engaging, so interesting and exciting up till the turning point when I realized that I would never get to see what cool thing was locked inside the box, because the hero was out to stop the villain from discovering it.

Why are stories always framed this way? Let’s make up a plot. An explorer has heard rumors of a cave which contains the secrets of life, and he sets off to find it and unlock it’s mysteries. Sounds fun and exciting, right? Sure, until you realize that the explorer is the villain, and the hero has to stop him from making the discovery in order to save the world, or the king, or for reasons of morality or whatever. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if the world is destroyed by the discovery being made, because the world is fictional, and my curiosity as a reader is very real.

Is it just convenience? Is it easier to have the hero trying to stop something than trying to do something? Or is there something in the majority of people that cries out for ‘the normal’ and fights against change of any kind. Is this resistance to change so strong that even when we escape into fantasy worlds of adventure and discovery–in writing them or reading them–our deep-seated opposition to change automatically places anyone trying to bring it along in the place of the villain?

Whatever it is, it bothers me, and has bothered me for a long time, and when I saw it coming I put down this otherwise brilliant book with a sigh and almost didn’t pick it up again. I wonder if I’m the only one with such a reaction to this trope. I wonder if there are plenty of stories that break it which I have somehow overlooked.

Anyway, despite my irritation this is still one of the better books I’ve read in a long time. I have been saying that about a lot of books lately, I know, but I’ve been on a streak of really good ones. I highly recommend it and would be surprised if it didn’t win some awards.

Also, If anyone would like to leave examples in the comments of stories where the hero is trying to accomplish something, and the villain is trying to stop him, I’d like to hear them!


3 Replies to “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North”

  1. Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    Its funny in archetypical Western Literature as Jonas david expertly puts the hero impedes but the villain is goal oriented. In Eastern or Middle Eastern many oppsites are true. Think about Alif Layla or Tale of One Thousand and One Nights/Arabian Nights. Scheherazade is trying ti impede her death but at the same time both she and the sultan is discovering something. The stories are taking them both on a journey; they are both discovering things. That is very beautiful.

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