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One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence

One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence
4.5
Book Name: One Word Kill
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher(s): 47North
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Science Fiction
Release Date: May 1, 2019

In January 1986, 15-year-old Nick is told that he has cancer. He begins chemotherapy and struggles to maintain as much of a normal life as he can. But a girl has joined his Dungeons and Dragons group, and a mysterious man has started following him around—a man who looks curiously familiar. Nick is drawn into a conspiracy involving time travel and a dangerous local gangster, and finds that his illness is not the weirdest thing happening to him by a very long way.

One Word Kill is a short, lively novel of about 200 pages, told from Nick’s point of view. The story is fast-moving and compelling, but the action is quite low-key—Nick saves his friends, not the world. However, that just makes it feel more grounded in reality.

Nick is a good character, convincingly written, who has a nice balance between awkwardness and insight. Lawrence does a good job of depicting both Nick’s fear of his illness and his determination to get on with life. I felt that some of the “scientific” explanations for the time-travel were a bit hard to follow, but that didn’t damage the immersion of the story. I don’t know how those motion trackers in Aliens work, either, but they’re still scary.

The back of my copy mentions both Stranger Things and Ready Player One, which feel like fair comparisons, although One Word Kill is a smaller-scale story. Despite (or perhaps because of) its setting, One Word Kill feels very much like a book for now. The retro timescale and the sincere interest in geeky activities feel very 2019. However, even if it was written with one eye on what’s in vogue right now, that doesn’t mean that it’s any less good.

At times, I felt that Nick’s friends were a little too recognisable: the nerdy maths genius, the “normal” guy for whom D&D is an embarrassing private activity, the unattainable goth girl who can actually talk to other people. But Lawrence fleshes them out pretty well, and I can remember people like that from my own nerdy youth.

The pre-internet, pre-smartphone world feels both familiar and quite distant, and the differences are more noticeable in what Lawrence doesn’t mention than what he does. Parts of One Word Kill could be set now, or in the 1990s, but there are occasional references to Joy Division and Commodore 64s that pin it down. I did feel at times that Nick’s own experiences and his ongoing game of D&D didn’t quite fit: it seemed as if one was meant to inform the other, but I didn’t feel that they quite meshed as well as they could have done. But I’m not a regular player of D&D, and I may be missing something here.

I think One Word Kill could be enjoyed by both adults looking back with nostalgia, and modern kids who recognise some—but not all—of their own lives in it. It’s got a reasonable amount of swearing, but otherwise it feels perfectly fine for someone of Nick’s age.

I don’t read a lot of YA, but I thought that One Word Kill was an exciting and entertaining read. Nick is a strong, sympathetic character who struggles convincingly against real-world and science fiction villains. I look forward to reading about his next adventures in the sequel, Limited Wish.

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