“Truth may often be the first casualty of war, but dignity is definitely the first casualty of disease. It’s always a shock, when you’ve been hit by some calamity, to see the world go about its business with perfect indifference.”
Mark Lawrence continues to surprise me, and in the best possible way. One Word Kill is quite a departure for Lawrence, who is best known for his excellent fantasy novels. One Word Kill, on the other hand, is a science fiction-infused bildungsroman that takes place in London in 1986. The first-person narrator, Nick, is a 15-year-old boy who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. He has, at best, a 50% chance of surviving until his twentieth birthday.
Nick is a mathematical prodigy and a social outcast with a small circle of close friends who love playing Dungeons & Dragons and discussing the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics. The sci-fi elements come when Nick is approached by a visitor from the future with an important message that could rescue him from cancer, but more urgently for Nick, save his troubled new friend, Mia.
One Word Kill is full of 1980s nostalgia, with plenty of references to classic board games, television shows, movies, and music of the era. Payphones? They still got payphones. The references to political, social, and technological events of the era certainly bring back memories. As the characters watched the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, I was brought back to my own experience of watching the disaster on live TV during elementary school, not comprehending the tragedy that was unfolding before my very eyes.
As with Mark Lawrence’s fantasy novels, One World Kill is hyperintelligent and masterfully written. The more I read from Mark Lawrence, the more he reminds me of a grimdark David Mitchell. Like Mitchell, Mark Lawrence can so convincingly get in the minds of his characters and bring out their most authentic, natural voices. Lawrence is also constructing a grand universe across all of his various series, much like David Mitchell is doing across his novels (which didn’t become apparent, at least to me, until his fantastic masterpiece, The Bone Clocks). Personally, I see One Word Kill as the Mark Lawrence analogue to David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, another brilliant bildungsroman of a teenaged boy in 1980s working class England.
Mark Lawrence’s writing in One Word Kill is superb, as always. He brings out Nick’s voice perfectly, accurately capturing the mind of a boy growing up in the 1980s. The prose is polished and concise, with every word carefully chosen. As with Lawrence’s other books, there is no filler here. To give you a sense of the writing, let me quote Nick’s description of his first chemotherapy treatment in the children’s oncology ward:
“These kids behaved like old men and women, lying exhausted in their beds, eyes bright in dark hollows. When they looked at you it didn’t take much imagination to see the skull beneath the skin.
They had us arranged by length in treatment so the ward looked rather like an assembly line, taking in healthy children at one end and spitting out corpses at the other.”
One Word Kill strikes a perfect balance between stimulating the reader’s mind and heart. The way Nick handles his cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy, and the subsequent interactions with his friends, are simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. As a scientist, I also loved the discussions of quantum mechanics and the implications of its many-worlds interpretation.
One Word Kill is such a pleasant surprise and a great entry point for readers new to Mark Lawrence. The Impossible Times trilogy continues with Limited Wish and Dispel Illusion.