The fifth novel published under the pseudonym Claire North, 84K is a dystopian near-future story, following in the footsteps of classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. This is the first of North’s (Catherine Webb) novels I have read, so I can’t compare it to her previous entries. 84K demonstrates prodigious talent on North’s part, weaving a complex thread of plotlines over the course of a non-linear timeline, though fails to deliver anything truly original in a sub-genre already well-travelled.
84K follows the story of the man who calls himself Theo Miller as he unravels a conspiracy that runs to the top level of government. When an old friend comes back into his life, Theo learns the importance of friends and family and must break out of his monotonous, un-inspiring life. But he has spent his entire adult life trying not to be noticed – can he really make a difference now?
What you will notice as soon as you pick up 84K is the very deliberate style the author has used (for instance, almost no line of dialogue is finished – it is a narrative built of half-thoughts and interrupted speech). This stylistic choice will immediately divide readers, like Marmite. I have to admit that I tend to prefer prose that is more like a ‘window pane’ (as Brandon Sanderson puts it), rather than drawing attention to the artifice, but North’s skill does pull this off… for the most part. As a result, despite the unique style, the novel is easy to read (regardless of whether or not you are a fan of the style).
I felt there were a number of issues with this novel, made worse by the author’s obvious skill. North’s abilities only made me want more from her. I found the character of Theo problematic, for one. It’s a rather controversial opinion to hold, I know, but I felt Theo fell into the Shadow Moon category for Neil Gaiman’s much-loved novel American Gods. I struggled to care about Shadow in the same way that I struggled with Theo – both characters are deliberately flavourless. They are reactionary and empty, little more than coathangers for the narrative to unfold around them.
Meanwhile, more interesting characters are never given a full moment to shine. There is one character, in particular, we get to know well in the first half of the novel who all but vanishes in part two. Not only was she someone I enjoyed reading about, her character is left without much of an arc.
The second half of the novel also suffers from pacing issues. I felt it should have wrapped up at around the three-quarter mark, and found myself wondering ‘Is it finished yet?’ This was so disappointing given the pacing up until that point had been great. I found myself racing through the book despite being less than thrilled with some of the stylistic choices. But it all came undone before the end – a sad end to a promising narrative.
If the wrapping up of the narrative threads had been handled better, issues I had with Theo’s character and the prose style would have been mere footnotes in an otherwise enjoyable novel. But the mishandling of the latter half of the book ruined the experience for me, despite otherwise near-flawless technical execution.
I know this all might sound negative, but there was a lot to like about 84K. It is undeniable that North is an extremely talented writer. In the hands of anyone lesser, the prose choices she makes would have been unbearable. But she makes it work. But her skill only provides a starker drop when she doesn’t hit the mark.
Verdict: A well-written novel, 84K will keep readers enthralled for two-thirds of the page count. But without a truly original premise or thrilling characters, the narrative trips at the final hurdles.