PFD Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year shortlist – Claire North

The End of the Day by Claire North

Claire North came to our attention via the bestseller that was The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. But she is no tyro author; she has four novels and a trilogy of e-novellas under her mantle as North, six adult fantasy books before that writing as Kate Griffin and, yet another previous writing life as Catherine Webb (her real name I think) – author of YA Victorian fantasy adventures. She is certainly prolific and published her first novel aged fourteen!

The End of the Day is the first of her novels that I’ve read, although I’ve got Harry August and Touch on my shelves. Her latest novels sit on the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy having contemporary settings with twisting thrillerish plots incorporating SF&F elements, and indeed they are published by Orbit.

The End of the Day is the story of Charlie, who gets a job as the ‘Harbinger of Death’.  In case you’re not familiar with the word, harbinger, the Oxford Dictionaries definition is on your right.  It comes from an old word for someone who goes ahead to find lodgings, usually for an army.

Charlie’s job isn’t quite like that. He travels the world to visit people on behalf of death. He talks to them, listens to them, gives them a gift and leaves before Death arrives.  He is sent to selected people sometimes as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning; some of those he visits will change their lives as a result and Death may pass them by.

Charlie is an ordinary chap, he lives in Dulwich, a nice bit of South London. He was surprised when he got the job. His appointments and travel arrangements come via Head Office in Milton Keynes.  Things commence with a short chapter previewing the beginning of the end of the story so we know from the start that Charlie will have a difficult journey in his new career, which may cost him his sanity, maybe even his life.

His first appointment is to visit a dying old lady, the only person still living that speaks a particular language. He brings whiskey and they talk about music. After he leaves, Death arrives and Mama Sakinai dies, her language goes with her.  His next will take him to Nuuk in Greenland on the trail of a professor with his favourite tea. Charlie has to find someone to trek into the ice with, and he and Sven nearly die before they catch up with the professor. This is the first time that Charlie will be rescued by Patrick, a young and rich city trader, who is summoned by death to bear witness – and get Charlie out of trouble. Patrick will crop up several times – quite a confusing character.

Charlie is lovely though, and when he finally gets a girlfriend, Emmi, we really hope that she can cope with his unusual job and unusual hours. Their tentative steps towards love alternate between the tales of Charlie’s notable appointments. Running alongside the two main strands is a third – short chapters full of disjointed lines of chatter, dialogue, banter – voices in the ether.

We do get to meet Death, and it was lovely that Death was a woman. We also meet the other horsemen of the apocalypse – War, Famine and Pestilence, and their harbingers but only as their paths cross in passing. These little glimpses we get of the other departments are fascinating to say the least.

As the novel progresses the stories get less and less light-hearted. Charlie will find himself put into increasingly difficult positions, particularly by those who would wish to cheat Death.  Charlie will get threatened, beaten, tortured after helping those he goes to visit. It gets quite tough to read in parts. We find ourselves thinking back to the beginning and wonder whether Charlie is burning out. We want him to survive to return to Emmi – perhaps he ought to look for a new job.  Charlie prides himself in dong a good job though, in finishing the tasks he is given, he endures everything thrown at him, even though his hold on his own being waivers.

Although the individual cases that North gives Charlie contain some fascinating insights, it does begin to get a bit repetitive, which is a shame, it was difficult to see where the plot was going in terms of Charlie’s work. It’s an odd mixture too – there are moments that could come out of Terry Pratchett, others that felt more like Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books, and there was plenty of philosophical musings about life, lives lived and death. At just over 400 pages, I could have done with losing some of the between main chapter stray voices, which could be quite distracting

I will look forward to reading North’s other novels having read The End of the Day which I enjoyed.  It is ambitious in scope and original in execution with an ordinary hero we can all love. I appreciated the judges shortlisting of a literary genre thriller with mass market appeal for this prize too. It’s an interesting, even brave choice – I wish other literary awards would broaden their horizons similarly.

Source: Review copy for the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel.

Read fellow judges reviews:  Clare,  Dane, Rebecca, Eleanor.

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