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The Book of Koli
By M. R. Carey
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The first in a masterful new trilogy from acclaimed author M. R. Carey, The Book of Koli begins the story of a young boy on a journey through a strange and deadly world of our making.
"Enthralling…Koli embarks upon a journey as perilous as it is enlightening." —Guardian
"The best thing I've read in a long time. I loved it." —Joanne Harris
"Carey hefts astonishing storytelling power with plainspoken language, heartbreaking choices, and sincerity like an arrow to the heart." —Locus
Look out for the next novels in the trilogy: The Trials of Koli and The Fall of Koli
I got a story to tell you. I’ve been meaning to make a start for a long while now, and this is me doing it, but I’m warning you it might be a bumpy road. I never done nothing like this before, so I got no map, as it were, and I can’t figure how much of what happened to me is worth telling. Monono says I’m like a man trying to cut his hair without a mirror. Too long and you might as well not bother. Too short and you’re probably going to be sorry. And either road, you got to find some way to make the two sides match.
The two sides is this: I went away, and then I come home again. But there’s more to the story than that, as you might expect. It was a hard journey, both ways. I was tried and I was tested, lots of times. You could say I failed, though what I brung back with me changed the world for ever. I met the shunned men and their messianic, Senlas, who looked into me with his hundreds of eyes. I crossed the ruins of Birmagen, where the army of the Peacemaker was ranged against me. I found the Sword of Albion, though it was not what I was looking for and it brung me as much harm as good. I fought a bitter fight against them I loved, and broke the walls that sheltered me so they’d never stand again.
All this I done for love, and for what I seen as the best, but that doesn’t mean it was right. And it still leaves out the reason why, which is the heart of it and the needful thing to make you know me.
I am aiming to do that – to make you know me, I mean – but it’s not an easy thing. The heft of a man’s life, or a woman’s life, is more than the heft of a shovelful of earth or a cord of timber. Head and heart and limbs and all, they got their weight. Dreams, even, got their weight. Dreams most of all, maybe. For me, it seems dreams was the hardest to carry, even when they was sweet ones.
Anyway, I mean to tell it, the good and the bad of it all together. The bad more than the good, maybe. Not so you can be my judge, though I know you will. Judging is what them that listen does for them that tell, whether it’s wanted or not. But the truth is I don’t mainly tell it for me. It’s rather for the people who won’t never tell it for themselves. It’s so their names won’t fall out of the world and be forgotten. I owe them better, and so you do. If that sounds strange, listen and I’ll make it good.
My name is Koli and I come from Mythen Rood. Being from there, it never troubled me as a child that I was ignorant what that name meant. There is people who will tell you the rood was the name of the tree where they broke the dead god, but I don’t think that’s to the purpose. Where I growed up, there wasn’t many as was swore to the dead god or recked his teaching. There was more that cleaved to Dandrake and his seven hard lessons, and more still that was like me, and had no creed at all. So why would they name a village after something they paid so little mind to?
My mother said it was just a misspeaking for Mythen Road, because there was a big road that runned right past us. Not a road you could walk on, being all pitted stone with holes so big you could lose a sheep in them, but a road of old times that reminds us what we used to be when the world was our belonging.
That’s the heart of my story, now I think of it. The old times haunt us still. The things they left behind save us and hobble us in ways that are past any counting. They was ever the sift and substance of my life, and the journey I made starts and ends with them. I will speak on that score in its place, but I will speak of Mythen Rood first, for it’s the place that makes sense of me if there’s any sense to be found.
It is, or was, a village of more than two hundred souls. It’s set into the side of a valley, the valley of the Calder River, in the north of a place called Ingland. I learned later that Ingland had a mess of other names, including Briton and Albion and Yewkay, but Ingland was the one I was told when I was a child.
With so many people, you can imagine the village was a terrible big place, with a fence all round it that was as high as one man on another man’s shoulders. There was a main street, called the Middle, and two side streets that crossed it called the Span and the Yard. On top of that, there was a score of little paths that led to this door or that, all laid with small stones trod down until they was even. None of the houses was built within fifty strides of the fence. That was Rampart law, and never broke.
I’m Koli, like I already said. Koli Woodsmith first, then Koli Waiting, Koli Rampart, Koli Faceless. What I am now don’t really have a name to it, so just Koli. My mother was Jemiu Woodsmith, that was Bassaw’s daughter and had the sawmill over by Old Big-Hand stream. I was raised up to that work, trained by Jemiu how to catch wood from a live tree without getting myself killed, how to dry it out and then steep it in the poisonous soup called stop-mix until it was safe, and how to turn and trim it.
My father was a maker of locks and keys. I am dark brown of skin, like he was, not light like my mother and my sibs. I don’t know what my father’s name was, and I don’t think my mother knowed it either, or if she did she never told me. He journeyed all the way from Half-Ax to put new locks on the doors of Rampart Hold, and he was billeted for the night in my mother’s mill. Two things come of that night. One of them was a brand-new lock on our workshop door that would stand against the end of the world. The other one was me. And there’s at least one of the two my mother never had no cause to regret.
So my mother and my father had just the one night of sweetness together, and then he went back home. Half-Ax being so far away, the news of what he had left behind him probably never got there. Or if it did, it didn’t prompt him to return. I come along nine months after that, dropping out of Jemiu’s belly into a big, loud, quarrelsome family and a house where sawdust settled on everything. The sound of the saw turning was my nursery song, you could say, and my alarum too. The fresh-cut wood was stacked in the yard outside the house so it could dry, and the stacks was so high they shut out the sun at noon-day. We wasn’t allowed to go near the piles of fresh wood, or the wood that was steeping in the killing shed: the first could strike you down and the second could poison you. Rampart law said you couldn’t build nothing out of wood unless the planks had steeped in stop-mix for a month and was dead for sure. Last thing you wanted was for the walls of your house to wake up and get to being alive again, which green wood always will.
My mother had herself five children that lived to be born, a thing she managed without ever being married. I heard her say once that though many a man was worth a tumble, there wasn’t one in a hundred was worth living with. I think it was mostly her pride, though, that got in the way of her marrying. She never liked much to pull her elbows in, or bow to another’s will. She was a fierce woman in all ways: fierce hard that she showed on the outside; fierce loving underneath that she mostly hid.
Well, the mill did well enough but it was not a Summer-dance and there was times when Jemiu was somewhat pressed to keep us fed. We got by though, one way and another, all six of us bumping and arguing our way along. Seven of us, sometimes, for Jemiu had a brother, Bax, who lived with us a while. I just barely remember him. When I was maybe three or four Summers old, he was tasked by the Ramparts to take a message to Half-Ax. He never come back, and after that nobody tried again to reopen that road.
Then my oldest sister Leten left us too. She was married to three women of Todmort who was smiths and cutlers. We didn’t get to see her very much after that, Todmort being six miles distant from Mythen Rood even if you walk it straight, but I hoped she was happy and I knowed for sure she was loved.
And the last to leave was my brother Jud. He went out on a hunting trip before he was even old enough to go Waiting, which he done by slipping in among the hunters with his head down, pretending like he belonged. Our mother had no idea he was gone. The party was took in the deep woods – ambushed and overwhelmed by shunned men who either would of et them or else made shunned men out of them. We got to know of it because one woman run away, in spite of getting three arrows in her, and made it back to the village gates alive. That was Alice, who they called Scar Alice after. They was not referring to the scars left by the arrows.
So after that there was only me, my sisters Athen and Mull, and our mother. I missed Leten and Jud very much, especially Jud because I didn’t know if he was still alive and in the world. He had been gentle and kind, and sung to me on nights when we went hungry to take my mind away from it. To think of him being et or eating other people made me cry sometimes at night. Mother never cried. She did look sad a while, but all she said was one less mouth to feed. And we did eat a little better after Jud was gone, which in some ways made his being gone worse, at least for me.
I growed up a mite wild, it’s got to be said. Jud used to temper me somewhat, but after he was gone there wasn’t nobody else to take up that particular job. Certainly my mother didn’t have no time or mind for it. She loved us, but it was all she could do to keep the saw turning and kill the wood she cut. She didn’t catch all the wood herself, of course. There was four catchers who went out for her from November all the way through to March, or even into Abril if the clouds stayed thick. This was not a share-work ordered by the Ramparts, but an agreement the five of them made among themselves. The catchers was paid in finished cords, one for every day’s work, and Jemiu paid them whether the day’s catch was good or bad. It was the right thing to do, since they couldn’t tell from looking which wood was safe and which was not, but if the catch was bad, that was a little more of our wood gone and nothing to show for it.
Anyway, Jemiu was kept busy with that. And my growed-up sisters Athen and Mull helped her with it – Athen with good grace; Mull with a sullen scowl and a rebel heart. I was supposed to do everything else that had got to be done, which is to say the cooking and the cleaning, fetching water and tending the vegetables in our little glasshouse. And I did do those things, for love and for fear of Jemiu’s blame, which was a harder hurt than her forbearing hand.
But there was time, around those things, to just be a child and do the exciting, stupid, wilful things children are bound to do. My best friends was Haijon Vennastin, whose mother was Rampart Fire, and Molo Tanhide’s daughter that we all called Spinner though her given name was Demar. The three of us run all over Mythen Rood and up the hills as far as we could go. Sometimes we even went into the half-outside, which was the place between the fence and the ring of hidden pits we called the stake-blind.
It wasn’t always just the three of us. Sometimes Veso Shepherd run with us, or Haijon’s sister Lari and his cousin Mardew, or Gilly’s Ban, or some of the Frostfend Farm boys that was deaf and dumb like their whole family and was all just called Frostfend, for they made their given names with movements of their hands. We was a posse of variable size, though we seemed always to make the same amount of noise and trouble whether we was few or many.
We was chased away by growers in the greensheds, shepherds on the forward slope, guards on the lookout and wakers at the edge of the wold. We treated all those places as our own, in spite of scoldings, and if worse than scoldings come we took that too. Nobody cut us no slack rope on account of Haijon’s family, or Demar’s being maimed.
You would think that Haijon, being who he was and born to who he was, might have put some swagger on himself, but he never done it. He had other reasons for swaggering, besides. He was the strongest for his age I ever seen. One time Veso Shepherd started up a row with him – over the stone game, I think it was, and whether he moved such-and-such a piece when he said he didn’t – and the row become a fight. I don’t know how I got into it, but somehow I did. It was Veso and me both piling onto Haijon, and him giving it back as good as he got, until we was all three of us bloodied. Nobody won, as such, but Haijon held his own against the two of us. And the first thing he said, when we was too out of breath and too sore to fight any more, was “Are we going to finish this game, or what?”
My boast was I was fastest out of all of us, but even there Haijon took some beating. One of the things we used to do, right up until we went Waiting and even once or twice after, was to run a race all round the village walls, starting at the gate. Most times I won, by a step or a straw as they say, but sometimes not. And if I won, Haijon always held up my hand and shouted, “The champion!” He never was angry or hurt to lose, as many would of been.
But of course, you might say, there was a bigger race where his coming first was mostly just assumed. For Haijon was Vennastin.
And Vennastins was Ramparts.
And Ramparts, as you may or may not know, was synced.
That’s what the name signified, give or take. If you was made a Rampart, it was because the old tech waked when you touched it. Ramparts got to live in Rampart Hold and to miss their turn on most of the share-works that was going on. But we relied on them and their tech for defending ourselves against the world, so it seemed like that was a fair thing. Besides, everyone got a chance to try out for Rampart, didn’t they? Somehow, though, it was always Vennastins the old tech waked for and answered to. Except for one time, which I’ll tell you of in its place. But the next thing I’ll tell is how Demar come to be Spinner.
From when I was ten Summers old to when I was twelve, Lari Vennastin had a needle that she kept as a pet. She fed it on stoneberries and rats taken out of traps. She even give it a name, which was Lightning. She shouldn’t of been let to do it, and certainly nobody else would of been, but Ramparts made the law in Mythen Rood or in this case kind of forgot to.
The needle was only a kitten when Lari found it, and crippled besides. Something had bitten it and took off most of its foreleg. Then the same something must of spit it out or flung it away, so it fell inside the fence. You might of thought it had fell out of a tree except of course that was all cleared ground up there by the fence and any trees that tried to root in would of been burned.
The needle was just lying there, not moving at all except that you could see its chest going up and down as it breathed. Haijon lifted up his boot to tread on it, but Lari called out to him to let it be. She carried it home and tended to it, and somehow it lived. And it kept right on living, though there was plenty of arguments in the Count and Seal to put it down. Ramparts was hard to argue against, and Lari was the sweet and savour of her mother’s life.
Anyway, after a while we got so used to having that needle around that we kind of forgot what it was. Maybe it was on account of Lightning having only the three legs, and hopping around in a funny-looking way. But it also had, like all its kind do, a mouth with rings of teeth that pointed backwards and inwards and a jaw that hooked and unhooked like a ratchet so when it hunted it could eat whatever it catched. Maybe we figured if Lightning ever turned mean we’d be able to outrun it. Only that’s not how it happened.
One day a gang of us was playing bolt-the-door on the gather-ground. We was running around like we was crazy people, and Lightning was running with us, getting more and more excited. Demar made a run from one end of the ground to the other, dodging round three or four that tried to catch her. When she got to the mark, she jumped up high and waved her arms around, yelling free-come. And we all come, laughing and cheering her.
Then suddenly Lari’s needle was on the end of Demar’s arm. It just jumped up, gaped its mouth wider than a water bucket and closed it again around Demar’s wrist.
We didn’t know what to do. Some of us was screaming and crying out, standing there like we was frozen. Demar didn’t make a sound, though her teeth was clenched tight. Her legs give way under her and she went down slowly onto her knees. Her face was white as choker-blossom.
Haijon and me come running, from the two sides of her. But when I got there, I didn’t have nothing I could do. I just kneeled down next to Demar and grabbed a hold of her other hand, gripping it tight, like I could draw some of her pain from out of her by touching her.
“Your father,” Haijon said to her. “Your father’s knives.” He said it like the words was being squeezed out of him. Like the needle was biting on him too, and words was spurting up out of him the way blood comes out of a wound. I seen right away that it was a good thought, but it needed more than just the thinking; it needed us to take her, fast. And out of the two of us, he was the stronger.
“Lift her up,” I said. “I’ll take Lightning.”
Demar seen what we was thinking to do, and she give herself up to it. When Haijon scooped her up in his arms, she let herself go all soft and limp. I grabbed the needle, holding it gentle as a baby though right then I hated it like the dead god’s hell.
We run together across the gather-ground and down the hill to Molo Tanhide’s drying shed, which was where he would surely be on a day as hot as that one was. And I suppose he heard the shouts and screams because he come out to meet us, stepping out of the dark heat of the shed with his face red and his hand wiping across his brow.
He took it all in, right in that moment – the needle hanging off of Demar’s arm, and us carrying her. Demar was his onliest child, and he brung her up all on his own after his wife, Casra, died. She was everything in his life that mattered. He stepped back inside for about a half of a heartbeat and come out again with a knife in his hand. It was his finest knife, ground so fine you couldn’t hardly see the blade edge-on.
We laid Demar down in front of him, and he went to work. Haijon held her, and I held Lightning, as hard and fast as we could.
Knives and wild beasts was Molo’s study. He knowed to slice down through the needle’s throat and then work in a circle, too fast for it to shift its grip or bite down harder. He peeled it off Demar’s right hand like a glove, and he done it near perfect.
But near’s as much as saying not. He took Demar’s first finger, her pointing finger, with it.
He dumped the dead needle, inside out, on the steps of Rampart Hold, like he was giving back to the Ramparts what was theirs. Lari come out to fetch it. She was rocking the dead beast like a baby in her arms, and crying like a baby herself, and cursing Molo for a lawless and a shunned man and Dandrake knows what else. But Catrin Vennastin, that was Rampart Fire, had the sense to see what was what. She dragged the bloody thing out of her daughter’s arms and flung it back down on the ground. “Should of drowned it when she brung it in,” she muttered. And to Molo Tanhide she said, “Bring your daughter inside, and I’ll sew her up.”
“Thank you, Dam Catrin,” Molo says, “but I’ll sew her my own self.” And he did, careful enough that you could barely see the scar. Only a little pucker where the missing finger used to be. The rest of Demar’s hand healed up well enough, though it had a kind of a stippled look to it, like sacking-cloth, where all them thin, sharp teeth had bit into her.
A year passed, without any apology or make-right to the Tanhides from Rampart Hold, nor no public check for Lari. Then one day when we was out playing we passed a little stoneberry bush that had rooted inside the fence and not been burned out yet. “Them berries is all but ripe,” Lari says. “Lightning would of et the lot of them.” Then she gives Demar a look, and says, “If your daddy hadn’t of killed him.”
Demar only shrugged her shoulders, but Haijon was red-faced. “Her daddy done what had got to be done,” he told his sister, looking as solemn-stern as their mother in that moment.
“He could of cut her hand off,” Lari said, “and left Lightning alive. A maimed hand’s not good for nothing anyway.”
Lari was knowed to be mean from time to time, but it was probably being checked by Haijon in front of all of us that made her so stupid mean that day. Haijon took a step towards her, like he was going to hit her, but Demar got in first. She drawed back her right hand, the one with just the three fingers on it, and she smacked Lari Vennastin in the head so hard that Lari spun round before she fell down.
“Well now,” she says. “It seems like a maimed hand is still good for one thing, Lari. It’s good for to play spinning top.”
After that, we called Demar Spinner. And she liked the name, and took it to herself, though her father’s name being Tanhide chimed kind of strange with it. “I won’t have that name for long,” she said, when Veso Shepherd tried to make a joke out of it. “I’ll be Spinner Waiting soon enough.”
For our fourteenth year was upon us. It was almost time for us to be who we was going to be. Which I’ll tell right soon, I promise, after only one more stepping sideways to talk about how we lived. It was a long time ago after all, and you might not have the sense of it.
Everything that lives hates us, it sometimes seems. Or at least they come after us like they hate us. Things we want to eat fight back, hard as they can, and oftentimes win. Things that want to eat us is thousands strong, so many of them that we only got names for the ones that live closest to us. And the trees got their own ways to hurt us, blunt or subtle according to their several natures.
There’s shunned men too, that live in the deep forest and catch and kill us when they can. Nobody knowed back then who they was, whether they was just the faceless that had been throwed out of other villages or if they had got a village of their own that was hid somewhere, but they were monstrous cruel and worse than any beast.
Against these things, we of Mythen Rood, like every settlement of humankind, put up walls, hollowed out stake-blinds, set sentries, tried every way we could to pitch our own hate against the world’s hate, giving back as good or bad as we got. We digged ourselves in and weathered it, for what else was there to do?
Each season brung its own terrors down on us. In Winter, the cold could freeze your fingers off if you weren’t wary, and snow fell on top of snow until you couldn’t make your way without web-spreads or walkers. The snow was mostly just water set hard, but sometimes it had silver in it and that was dangerous. If you drunk snow-melt and didn’t sieve out the silver first, it could make you sick in your stomach. Old ones and babies could even die of it.
In Spring the snow thawed, which was a mercy, but sometimes – maybe one time in four or five – it would be a choker Spring, and you would get something else coming alongside the thaw. Of all our mortal threats, I was most mightily afraid of the choker seeds, because they attacked so fast and was so hard to fight. If a seed fell on your skin, you had only got a few seconds to dig it out again before the roots went in too deep. After that there wasn’t nothing anyone could do for you save to kill you right away before the seedling hollowed you out.
In Mythen Rood, our answer to that was to try to stop the seeds from falling in the first place. As soon as the warmer weather come, Rampart Fire (which in my day, like I told you, was Catrin Vennastin) would send out runners to check the choker trees for blossom. If they found any, she would strap on the firethrower and walk the forest. Rampart Remember would plot her route and ten strong spearmen would journey at her side while she burned out the blossoms before the trees could seed. The spearmen was to kill or fend off any beasts that might come, watching Catrin’s back and her two sides while she played the firethrower across the branches and seared the seeds inside their pods. Against the choker trees themselves there wasn’t any protecting that would avail, so Catrin and her spearmen only went out on days when the clouds was thick and heavy, and if the sun gun to show through they run as fast as they could for the clear ground.
Summer was hardest, because most things was woke and walking then. Knifestrikes flying straight down out of the sun so you couldn’t see them coming, molesnakes out of the ground, rats and wild dogs and needles out of the forest. Anything that was big and come by its own lonely self was give to Fer Vennastin to deal with. Fer was Rampart Arrow. She would take the creature down with one of her smart bolts. And if it was a drone that come, dropping out of the sky and throwing out its scary warning, one of Fer’s bolts would oftentimes do for that too. But she only just had the three of them, which meant someone always had to go out to bring the bolt back afterwards. We couldn’t afford to lose none.
If wild dogs or rats or knifestrike swarms come, we had a different way, which was Rampart Knife. Loop Vennastin had that name when I was younger, then Mardew passed the test and it was give to him when Loop died. When a swarm attacked, Rampart Knife would stand up on the fence or the lookout and carve the beasts into pieces as they come. Then we would cook and eat the meat as long as there was no worms or melters in it. Wormed meat or melted meat we kept well clear of, for even if you digged out what you could see there was always more you couldn’t.
I got to say, our fights against the rats was far between. Mostly it was hunters that seen them, a pack of ours crossing paths with a bunch of theirs in the deep woods and both going on their way, but watching each other out of sight with spears all up on our side and teeth and claws out on theirs.
Lots of people wondered how the rats could come through the forest even in the warmest weather, for it was plain they didn’t fear the sun. Then one time Perliu Vennastin, Rampart Remember, talked to the database about it. The database said the rats had got something inside them that sweated out onto their skin when the sun come out and kind of stopped the choker trees from closing tight on them, or choker seeds from breaking open on them and growing down into their bodies.
- "This is a beautiful book. Gripping, engaging, and absolutely worth the time it takes to burrow yourself into its reality. I can't recommend it highly enough."—Seanan McGuire on The Book of Koli
- "M.R. Carey hefts astonishing storytelling power with plainspoken language, heartbreaking choices, and sincerity like an arrow to the heart."
—Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls on The Boy on the Bridge
- On Sale
- Apr 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 416 pages