Touch by Claire North

Kepler had never meant to die this way — viciously beaten to death by a stinking vagrant in a dark back alley. But when reaching out to the murderer for salvation in those last dying moments, a sudden switch takes place.

Now Kepler is looking out through the eyes of the killer himself, staring down at a broken and ruined body lying in the dirt of the alley.

Instead of dying, Kepler has gained the ability to roam from one body to another, to jump into another person’s skin and see through their eyes, live their life — be it for a few minutes, a few months or a lifetime.

Kepler means these host bodies no harm — and even comes to cherish them intimately like lovers. But when one host, Josephine Cebula, is brutally assassinated, Kepler embarks on a mission to seek the truth — and avenge Josephine’s death.

For anyone that knows me or has talked about books with me for any length of time, it’s no secret that I love this book. It’s brilliantly written, straddles the line between genre and literary fiction, and has Something to Say about the world.

And—for me, at least—it’s nearly impossible to put down.

Claire North has a gift for taking a concept that could be fairly simple in nature and exploring it from every possible angle. In this case, it’s the ability to possess people, to slip into another’s skin and live their life as a “ghost”.

Does a host’s right to freedom supersede a ghost’s right to live? Does manipulating people with no better options make body snatching morally acceptable? And if you hop from body to body for centuries, what happens to your sense of identity? These are just a few of the concepts touched upon in the book.

The prose is relatively straightforward, yet delivers line after memorable line. As I was listening to the audiobook, I often found myself rewinding to catch a subtle line that only fully impacted me a minute or two later.

I want what everyone wants. Something better.

One of the most unique aspects of the novel is its structure. North is a master of nonlinear storytelling. There are frequent flashbacks to previous lives Kepler has inhabited, and these often don’t seem immediately relevant to the plot. While they always serve to build Kepler’s character and introduce key players for later in the story, it can be a bit jarring at times.

The other unique aspect is the dialogue. I have never encountered another author with North’s gift for instantly characterizing someone in a single spoken line. Sometimes ambient dialogue is used to explore a theme or describe a new setting, and the result is incredibly effective.

Do you like what you see?

The plot itself is probably the least important aspect of the novel. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t compelling. The opening scene shows Kepler hopping from body to body in a crowded train station, desperately trying to escape an assassin. Against all reason, the assassin knows about Kepler’s ability and tries to track them through the crowd.

While Kepler escapes, the body they’d been wearing for months does not. Kepler had grown to love Josephine, and they vow to seek revenge against the secret organization responsible for her murder. The journey that follows is North’s most thrilling tale yet, and the villain is one of the more disturbing I’ve read.

For those of you who enjoy audiobooks, this is one of the best I’ve ever listened to. Peter Kenny (of The Witcher and Culture fame) does the narration, and it’s delightful. Every time Kepler switches a body, Kenny shifts his voice to match the accent, gender, age, and dialect. And yet each of these many voices still captures the essence of Kepler, lending the character a cohesion that might not be possible through any other narrator. It doesn’t hurt that Kenny’s voice is just incredibly easy to listen to.

This is a fantastic book, and if I haven’t already driven the point home, I absolutely love it. If a speculative literary thriller with phenomenal worldbuilding and critical insights into humanity sounds intriguing to you, I cannot recommend this book enough.

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