The premise of this book, teenage children working as “phenomenauts”, researching the reality of being a fox or a whale, or an eagle, by projecting their consciousness into constructed versions of the creatures and experiencing their lives in the wild, is so original, that it took me a long time to see that the book is really about a strong but damaged teenager who is, literally, trying to find herself.
At nineteen, with seven years of working for ShenCorp, jumping into the minds and senses of other creatures behind her, Kit North is the world’s most experienced phenomenaut. She loves what she does. She needs to do it. It is fundamental to her sense of who she is.
Kit does not love ShenCorp and what they want to do with her abilities, The book opens with Kit hiding from ShenCorp in the streets and parks of Bristol, hungry, cold and alone. Most of the rest of the novel is spent flipping between that timeline and the events that led up to it. This structure misled me into thinking that the book is a thriller, but it isn’t really, it’s a personal journey into memory and identity being made by a vulnerable girl at the edge of her ability to hold herself together.
There was a lot to like about this book. The plot is original and well thought through. The descriptions of Kit’s experience of being different animals, perceiving the world through their senses, being driven by their urges, having the joy of their ability to fly or swim or sing or hunt, are beautifully done.
The description of the difficulty of “coming home”, of being just human with all those memories of being yourself in other bodies, is subtle and effective.
The novel captures the corrosive anxiety of not knowing if you can depend on your own perceptions, of being unable to be certain of whether you’re paranoid or whether you’re being hunted, of whether your sense of self is fractured or simply expanded beyond most people’s experience.
There are things in the novel that didn’t work well for me. The ShenCorp bad guys are thinly drawn and unremittingly bad without any real explanation of why they behave that way. The pace could have been tighter, especially if I read this with the expectation of it being a thriller. Sometimes the same facility for complex description that made the animal experiences vivid, clogged up the scenes that were there just to move the plot along.
The ending was well done if this is a book about a personal journey but a little anti-climatic if it’s meant as a thriller.
This was an enjoyable read with an original premise but it got a little caught between thriller and personal journey, or, at least, my reading got stuck on that.