Book review: The Trials of Koli (Rampart Trilogy #2) by M. R. Carey

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Humanity has risen and fallen and rise again more times than the average historian can count.

Ours is not a history built on success after endless success, unpunctuated by failure or loss; rather, we have lost almost as much as we have gained, and yet each times we have been brought to our collective knees, we have found a way to push ourselves back up again and keep going.

There are times, though, in M. R. Carey’s, The Trials of Koli, the second book in the mesmerisingly good Rampart Trilogy that began with The Book of Koli, when you wonder if we can pull off our fate-defying trick ever again and that we are doomed to a future of medieval ignorance, blind belief and pointless recrimination.

Carey has written this saga of a world after the Before-Times so masterfully, however, peopling it with characters who defy the odds again and again and offering small slivers of hope in a landscape increasingly bereft of it, that you begin to believe that naive but eager to learn Koli, practical, knowledgable Ursula and her diagnostic unit the Drudge and ex-cultist Cup, may just be able to rescue humanity into the pit in which we have ingloriously fallen.

While there is no doubt this free thinking trio – while Cup is still prone to religious genuflection more times than is good for her, she is growing in her understanding of the wider world around her and how much different it once was – may just pull one last critically important iron out of the fire for the human race, they face some formidable obstacles getting there.

“I guess it was my idea before it was anyone else’s. What I wanted, when I was first throwed out of Mythen Rood, was just to be left back in there again and be back with my family – my mother, Jemiu, and my sisters Athen and Mull. I missed them so much it was a hurt inside of me, like something hard and sharp that I had swallowed down without meaning to. But there was no chance of going home. If I set one foot inside the gate I would be hanged, and my mother and sisters alongside me. All I could hope to give them was more shame and hurt on top of what I already brung down on them.” (P. 6)

Take the various groups of splintered humanity around them in post-civilisationional crash Britain, who range from thoughtlessly superstitious such as Mythen Rood, the village from which a “Faceless” Koli hails but to which he is no longer welcome because he dared to think and act for himself, and Many Fishes, a village on the coast who are friendly and open but mired in strange belief, to the military forces of Half-Ax, commanded by the Peacemaker (the name is always in inverse proportion to their actions), who have been ordered to seize all the tech left in UK for the purpose of reuniting what is left of the British people.

Time and again, Koli et. al. find themselves beset by forces who rely less on the innovative thinking that once elevated and doomed old humanity, who may have created wondrous tech such as the Dreamsleevemusic device in which Koli’s self-aware AI friend Monono lives but also created the weapons to render it to near-nothing, and more on unthinking devotion to a set of commonly-agreed but ill-thought ideals.

In some ways, this is nothing new, with their escape from the mindless forces of modern ignorance beginning the series and sustaining it as the trio (really the quartet since Monono is very much a person; virtual but human in many ways, nonetheless) journey across climate change-ravaged Britain in search of the tech waiting for them at the Sword of Albion.

There is no guarantee once they get there that anything will be better but they are sustained by the hope that it will be, and it is fascinating to watch as Koli, a curious young man who might be fearful of the new at times but embraces it anyway with alacrity, comes to realise how much rich, expansive possibility the world still contains.

M. R. Carey (image courtesy Hachette UK)

Written with a rich understanding of the human condition, and an appreciation that for every step we take there are numerous backward ones, The Trials of Koli is a brilliantly engaging and thoughtfully exhilarating read, powered by a narrative that ceaselessly races to an exciting interim conclusion – there is a third book coming after all and judging by the way in which the book ends, it will be a thrilling ride indeed – while always stopping to consider what it all may mean.

While Ursula is very much aware of what the tech can offer in the way of benefits, have been schooled in the mysterious colony of Duglas to use technology in which few of her contemporaries can, she is also sagely aware of the great damage it can do too.

But, and this is a recurrent thread through this profoundly clever series which seamlessly melds action and though to brilliantly readable effect, the human race is far worse off without technology used wisely than it is trapped in an ignorant present, bereft of the advancements of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution which saw us largely leave our old superstitions behind in favour of fact.

Granted in Koli’s blighted world, technology ended civilisation, distorting and making fatally dangerous the natural world as it did so, but it retains the capacity to elevate it once again, and as Koli, and his childhood friend Spinner who is making substantial changes of her own back at Mythen Rood, continue on in their respective journeys, told in alternating sections, it becomes obvious that the human race is not done with saving itself once again.

“Now, Ludden was deserted and all but whelmed by the forest. This place where we camped had been their gather-ground, that now was just a field of weeds and young trees. Nobody knew what had happened to its people. They had not died, or at least not here, for there were no bodies to be seen. But it could not have been anything good that made them abandon their homes and go into the woods, all together, leaving their gates open wide.” (P. 333)

The Trials of Koli is a stunningly engrossing read.

It keeps you turning the page with the exciting events of a road trip to end all road trips through a vastly changed world where everything we know in the present is largely dead and buried at our own ill-thinking hand – it is heavily intimated that in trying to save ourselves from the climate change we have wrought that we simply push the dagger into our collective self still further – but it also stops to ask whether we deserve another crack at climbing the slippery slope of evolutionary advancement once again.

The answer is pretty much “yes” since Koli, Ursula, Monono and Cup, and Spinner back at Mythen Rood, are worthy exemplars of what made us so great and compassionate and laudable in the first place, but with strong caveats as humanity’s corrupted, feet of clay past coming rushing up to meet our protagonists over and over again, proving that while we can save ourselves once more, the capacity for doom is never far from us.

Carey writes with brilliant wisdom and care, and a captivating observance of humanity’s great potential if it acts wholly thoughtfully (which, sadly, rarely happens), gifting us with a story that is utterly, immersively rich and beautiful and emotionally resonant, seizing your heart with what is possible, even in the wastelands of our collective loss, but which also acts as a sage warning of how close we come every time to seizing defeat from the jaws of victory.

The third and final book in the Rampart Trilogy, The Fall of Koli is due for publication in 2021.

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