Fresh from the success of The First Fifteen Live of Harry August, Claire North—the second pseudonym (after Kate Griffin) of prose prodigy Catherine Webb—returns with Touch, a tremendously well-travelled science-fictional thriller that’s as disturbing as its predecessor was delightful.
From word one we follow an ancient entity christened Kepler by its enemies; a continuous consciousness of some sort that at the moment of its first host’s murder moved—much to its own amazement—into its murderer’s mind, and took over his body to boot. Several so-called “skins” later, Kepler has a basic understanding of its situation; of its ability, in particular, to essentially possess a person—any person—with but a touch.
“I walk through people’s lives and I steal what I find,” Kepler confesses. “Their bodies, their time, their money, their friends, their lovers, their wives—I’ll take it all, if I want to.”
Happily, our entity has attempted, over the centuries, to apply its power responsibly; to cause as little trauma as possible by sliding through the lives of others rather than trampling everything in its path; to recompense those who have played host to its essence, even. All things considered, Kepler seems to be a bit of a stand-up spirit… if spirit it is.
But of course it isn’t the only being able to inhabit the bodies of bystanders, and some of the others have attracted the attention of an organisation dedicated to their destruction—an organisation that sends an assassin to kill Kepler in the frenetic first flush of Touch.
One narrow escape later, and one dead host—a host Kepler had come to love—our protagonist goes on the offensive, only to find a file that sheds a little light on the organisation’s clandestine agenda:
Here, over ten years of my life, laid out in neat chronological order, every jump, every switch, every skin, tracked and documented and filed for future reference. […] Someone had spent years tracing me, monitoring my every move through records of amnesia, the testimonies of men and women who had lost an hour here, a day there, a few months at a time. It was a masterpiece of investigation, a triumph of forensic detection, right up to the point where, without explanation, it took it upon itself to lie shamelessly and brand both me and my host murderers.
To what end? Well… that’d be telling.
It may be as much of a chiller as it is a thriller, as interested in exploring questions of volition and submission as it is in ticking clocks and paranoid plots, but the chase-and-escape elements of Touch are truly tense in any event. North keeps us on our tiptoes the entire time, not least because the ground beneath the reader’s feet is never certain. This book moves—in pace and indeed in place. Kepler’s quest takes in trips to Edinburgh and Istanbul, Cairo and Bratislava, Berlin and Vienna, with stops in Paris, New York and any number of other cities, every one of which North renders remarkably, with detail-oriented descriptions of architecture and infrastructure alongside idiosyncratic impressions that suggest aspects of Kepler’s complex character.
Some of these settings we see in the present day of the piece; others we encounter in the past, thanks to Touch’s frequent flashbacks. As opposed to slowing the story, these feed fundamentally into the fiction’s physical conflict—at bottom a no-holds-barred battle between ghosts and ghostbusters. At the same time they serve to develop Kepler itself, an entity we can’t help but invest in, in the first because its very existence is in jeopardy, and underdogs are obscenely appealing—especially when they’re as witty and self-aware as this one.
But North is not the author to let herself, or us, off the hook so easily. Kepler, we learn before long, has done some horrific things; committed such crimes against humanity that it could easily be the big bad of another novel, and its enemies the heroes of that other iteration. In the book before us, though, good and evil are not absolutes, and we’re left to decide which force Kepler represents ourselves.
It’s these ambiguities that make Touch such a treat. Questions posed in little and in large print, absent obvious answers, and reminders, relatedly, that everything, including right and wrong, is relative. North makes this particular point plain by returning to it repeatedly and escalating it incrementally—from Kepler’s assertion that one of the skins we find it in “simply hadn’t realised that squinting was not the norm, having no experience save his own” to draw upon, to a happily married man’s metaphysical mid-life crisis:
I’ve begged. I’ve been down on the street on my fucking knees and begged, and I know I don’t want to do that. I know that this life is better—so much better it doesn’t even seem like the same me living it. I know that I have is great because everyone tells me so, but how do I know? How do I know that what I do is better than being a surgeon, hands covered in beating blood? Or a soldier, a politician, an actor, a teacher, a preacher. How the fuck do I know that my better is anything more than the great big fat lie we tell ourselves to justify the slow fat nothing of our days?
There are clear parallels between Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, foremost among them the long and extraordinary lives lived by the protagonists of the respective texts—something of a Claire North signature, it seems—but at no point does the second book to bear her brand read like a retread. Bolstered by an impeccable sense of setting, a challenging central character and a sinister plot that doesn’t for a second stop, Touch is its own singular, spirited thing, as fascinating and affecting as its predecessor.
Buy it, by all means, but be warned: you won’t be quite so cavalier about pressing the flesh after a couple of chapters in Kepler’s uncanny company.
Touch is available now from Orbit.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.