Life has not been kind to Nick Hayes; his father chose the fast way out when faced with cancer, he is targeted by both the school bully and the recently expelled school psychopath, and now he has been diagnosed with cancer himself, preparing for his first chemotherapy session to fight the aggressive leukaemia from which he has only been given a fifty percent five year survival chance.
It’s January 1986, and as Nick ponders whether or not he will see the next decade arrive his closest friends remain unaware of his condition, only knowing that he has missed a couple of days of school for reasons unspecified, but he has decided he will tell them at their next Dungeons & Dragons session.
Expecting to spend the day with John and Simon under the calculating eye of dungeon master Elton, another surprise awaits, new player Mia, a girl entering the formerly strictly male enclave, but life gets stranger still when the scenarios Elton has prepared begin to echo events in Nick’s real life, a stranger in the woods following him who then reappears over the following days, almost as if he knows Nick’s movements before they happen.
Positioned as “Ready Player One meets Stranger Things,” Mark Lawrence’s One Word Kill rests on a presumption that the reader will be as enthralled by transcriptions of Dungeons & Dragons sessions as the players are, and while role playing games are perhaps not as niche an interest as in the period the novel is set, it is a tenuous hook to hang a novel on.
Crucially, where both Ready Player One and Stranger Things play strongly on the element of nostalgia for the eighties, they are principally aimed at an audience who grew up in that decade and understands that collective experience; written with a young adult readership in mind, One Word Kill‘s joyful dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album and the shock of the Challenger disaster have no inherent emotional power to those who were not there.
Into this awkwardly imagined world comes the man who calls himself Demus who pushes Nick to spend his time recuperating from his treatments learning about obscure theoretical physics, specifically how the multiverse theory precludes the possibility of time travel because any attempt to visit the past results in a splinter universe, yet Nick’s visitor claims he is a violation of this precept.
A walking paradox whose presence may represent a threat to Nick’s future even as he tries to manipulate his own past, who is Demus and why does he need the cooperation of Nick and his friends? Predictably, in order to preserve the future, what he will reveal amounts to little more than parlour tricks, yet the gang are, for the most part, sufficiently convinced to agree to help.
One Word Kill joining a slew of recently published young adult time travel novels, among them The Secret Runners of New York and The Time Travel Diaries, Lawrence’s prose and characters are flat, the setup too convenient as like a planned D&D raiding party each of Nick’s friends just happens to have a skill or connection relevant to Demus’ plan. The whole devoid of any convincing humanising and the plotting needlessly convoluted for what little it achieves, it is too leaden for the intended audience and too trite for a more experienced reader.
One Word Kill is available from 1st May from 47 North