Book review: TRUEL1F3 by Jay Kristoff

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia)

Sticking the landing is the thing.

Not just in gymnastics but in trilogies, whatever medium they occupy; you can have the most glorious story unfurl with grace and fury over two gripping first instalments but if you don’t land the finale just so, all anyone will remember is how you stuffed up the big finish.

Thankfully Jay Kristoff won’t have to worry his prolific head about such criticism with the final part of his Lifel1k3 series, TRUEL1F3 managing that near-perfect balance between continuing the adventures of characters while wrapping them in a way that feels like a fitting farewell, well told.

Helping readers’ immersion back into the nuclear war-scarred post-apocalyptic world of the series is the fact that TRUEL1F3 starts with a snappy but informative recounting of what happened to each character in the first two books.

While we would all like to think we have eidetic memories when it comes to the books we read and love, the reality is that when you are reading upwards of 150 books a year and there is a year between each book in a trilogy that flawless recall of the previous instalment’s events may be found lacking.

The recap means that you can quickly get yourself up to speed before heading into a narrative that wastes no time in sending the characters we have come to know and love on a desperately intense race to a finish line in which not only their own fates but those of the entire remnant human race, and more than a few artificial lifeforms, hang in the balance.

“The sky to the north was dark with dust and smoke, that awful mushroom cloud slowly smearing itself across the cigarette sky. The city was shrouded in ashes, the taste of burned rubber and charred salt clinging to the back of his throat. His once-white T-shirt was torn and bloodstained, his black jeans caked with dust and grime. The bullet wounds Preacher had given him hurt like broken glass and dirty acid, but they were gradually knitting closed—one more gift from the folk who’d made him more human than human.” (P. 23)

If you thought LIFEL1K3 (2018) and DEV1AT3 (2019) were thrill rides to into the dystopian sunset (now with added radioactive glow), TRUEL1F3 amps up the action even further, offering up a storyline that zips between the Mad Max-ian cities of the ruined west coast of America with a savage if thoughtful ferocity.

For all its desperate need to make things happen, and happen fast and spectacularly, which it pulls off with an elegance of purpose and intent that impresses at every turn, TRUEL1F3, like its predecessors, remains a thoroughly insightful rumination on what it means to be alive.

Not just human, though that matters greatly too, but alive.

In a series populated by humans, robots and cyborg lifeforms – the title of the series comes from the Lifelike lifeforms created by a now-dead apocalyptic corporate scientist and leader, many of whom are intent on enacting revenge of the species who created them and, in their eyes, took them for granted – asking what being alive, and more particularly, being human, is vitally important.

Every single character in the book from the gusty proto-mutant Lemon Fresh (named after the branded box she was found in as a baby) to her onetime bestie Eve through to Ezekiel (both Eve and Ezekiel are the very human looking artificial lifeforms of the trilogy title) through to sentient robot Cricket have had grappled, and continue to grapple in TRUEL1F3, with what it means to be more than just the sum of their parts.

Jay Kristoff (Image courtesy official author site)

But more than that, each of these highly-memorable and wonderfully three-dimensional characters who pulse with a vitality and personality all their own, have to undertake this struggle in the context of a story which allows precious little time for kumbayah meditation around the guitar-soundtracked campfire.

The novel begins with a wrap-up of the explosive cliffhanger of DEV1AT3 before racing at winningly breakneck speed through a series of literal life-or-death encounters upon which so much rests and which unfold with a huge sense of gravitas and blockbuster intensity.

There’s so much going on, in the very best of ways, that it would be all too easy to get lost in the myriad, flawlessly executed strands of the story – which, by the way, tie together so consummately well that there’s not a single moment of reader’s remorse to be had – but Kristoff has spent so much time allowing us to get to know these characters as real thinking, living, breathing (well, mostly) characters that there is a huge emotional investment in what happens to each and every one of them.

TRUEL1F3, in keeping with the spirit of the series overall, is not simply action for action’s sake.

That may read well in one respect but is an ultimately empty way to tell a story since you get to the end of all the banging and booming with no real sense that any of it means anything.

“Lemon ran.

She didn’t really know where she was headed. The only thing she knew for certain were ‘out’— and she didn’t have time to get there. The corridors were covered with glowbugs crawling the walls and ceiling. She was pretty sure those cute little button eyes actually worked, so at a minimum they were aware she was making a break. And for all Lemon knew, the whole damn building was sentient, and even now informing every Sentinel inside it that she was busting loose.” (P. 204)

And after reading through the entire trilogy, which pops with worldbuilding imagination par excellence, cracklingly-smart dialogues and vivacious characters, all of whom you are happy to have around (a rare thing in any sprawling ensemble-ish book), you want it all to mean something.

Quite a big of something in fact.

TRUEL1F3 nails combining thrilling apocalyptic save-the-world action with a searing exploration of what it means to be human and alive, with each characters going through quite believable arcs that resonate with the kind of existential angst that goes far beyond the occasional bout of “why are we here” that we all go through at one point or another.

In a world ruthlessly and overwhelmingly damaged by the thoughtless actions of the lesser angels of human nature, where the vestiges of nuclear war are not the only blight on a society still marred by greed, violence, bigotry, authoritarianism and poverty and a host of Homo Sapiens unique other ills, asking yourself what it means to be alive, to be human matters in ways that goes to the very soul of who you are.

That Kristoff manages to ask these big questions in the midst of an utterly invigorating tale speaks volumes about his skills as a writer but also about his humanity in a book which goes to the very heart of identity and authenticity in ways that will leave you gasping with recognition.

While it is deeply sad to kiss the Lifel1k3 series goodbye, at least for now (it’s certainly a rich enough world, narratively speaking, for many more adventures to take place), every reader will walk away from TRUEL1F3 deeply grateful that this is an ending that matters, that is thrilling and yet emotive, full speed head while ruminative and that it sounds a resounding confirmation on the value of all life however it is expressed while carefully upholding the idea that respect for the sacredness of that living expression must always be the driving force for anyone or anything, lest the mistakes of the past repeat themselves again and again … and again.

(image courtesy Penguin Random House)

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