The story so far has involved Sarah, who was in the first book which also showed her involvement in the development of V2 rockets in World War 2. Until the Last of Me had the responsibility of the task taken on by her daughter Mia, who at the end was succeeded by Lola in the 1980’s.
The Kibsu have a set of rules to continue their task –
Preserve the knowledge.
Survive at all costs.
Don’t draw attention to yourself.
Don’t leave a trace.
Fear the Tracker.
Always run, never fight.
There can never be three for too long.
which for thousands of years have been kept to, for the Kibsu’s descendants’ survival. There are never more than three women in the group, collectively referred to as ‘The Hundred’ and any family of these (grandmother, mother, daughter) knows that the situation cannot be for long.
It’s now 1999. 12-year old Aster is at a works party with her ‘dad’ when there is a shooting. Her dad dies as a result of a heart attack and Aster is taken by the military, under the command of Colonel Benjamin Veilleux, to a hospital to be checked out.
Or at least she would have, had not Aster escaped. She goes on the run with Samael, who tells Aster that he will look after her. The big reveal here is that Aster’s mum is Lola from Until the Last of Me. Although she is no longer alive, as the consequence of a promise to her Mum Samuel is determined to keep Aster safe and give her Lola’s old diaries to explain her missing past history.
All the way through this series tension has been created by the Kibsu being under threat, trying to do a difficult task and having to keep moving before being discovered. Here the tension is ramped as it appears that as a result of events in Until the Last of Me a signal has been sent – a kind of “Here we are!” message to those on their way.
The complication here is that we have met Samael before. As we discovered in Until the Last of Me he is one of the Trackers, determined to find the Kibsu on Earth and prepare the planet for the Others to arrive.
As before, most of this is told through the perspective of one character up to this point. We get this story mainly through 12-year-old Aster and so the emphasis is upon the relationship between Aster and Samael, as previous novels were focused on the relationship between Lola, Mia and Sarah.
Aster is an engagingly brilliant young girl, whose running dialogue is endearingly written in a way that I can only imagine is appropriate for a super-intelligent, super-strong young girl. (There’s a lot of mentions of Bruce Willis here, for example, and a hyperactive cascade of film and television references.)
Aster is educated by Samael and trained how to fight, gain skills such as how to drive a car and generally survive (Rule two on the list!)
Later in the novel we also begin to get chapters that give Samael’s perspective on events. There’s also an intriguing alternate plot given though entre’acts, which fills in some of the backstory by telling us of how the Kibsu of the past arrived on Earth and became part of the planet’s heritage.
None of this is particularly new to the series – there is a cyclical element to the story which I suspect explains the book’s title. But what makes For the First Time, Again in particular interesting is what Aster does after the realisation that she is an important part of a long history, and that it is up to her to do something about the impending threat. Aster, with no adults other than Samael to guide her, has to find her own way forward, for the new millennium means new beginnings. Unlike Lola, Mia and Sarah, Aster has no Kibsu ancestors to help her. This means that in order to survive she has to metaphorically rip up the Kibsu rules and start again.
This leads to interesting and often contradictory choices being made. Samael is not only an ex-tracker, but far from fearing him, Aster finds him her moral support and guardian-protector. This also means going against the rules, for instead of running both her and Samael have to fight for their survival, until by the end Aster is able to be an independent adult.
What this also means is that the novel does not always go the way you expect it to – which can be refreshing for some readers and frustrating for others. For anyone expecting a conclusion that ties everything up – not really. There is a conclusion of sorts, but also a key element that remains unresolved, even with an extra “Epilogue II” at the end. What the book really does is create a hard reset that could be continued with further books should the author wish to.
Kudos again for also adding extras – there’s an intriguing chapter at the back on the background research Neuvel has incorporated into the story, as well as a timeline of the Kibsu “Hundred” (although now more than that), and the always welcome playlist for your streaming service, now dealing with tracks from the 90’s and early 2000s.
So, whilst there is no clear-cut ending here (or is there?) For the First Time, Again is a great, fast read that takes us on a ride, interspersed with periods of inactivity whilst the main characters go to-ground. As you might expect with the third book in a series, it all makes more sense having read the preceding novels, but it is possible to follow what is going on here not having read the previous books. This may not necessarily be the place to jump onboard, but it’s an enjoyable ride for those wanting to continue the journey.
FOR THE FIRST TIME, AGAIN by Sylvain Neuvel
Published by Penguin/ Michael Joseph, April 2023
ISBN: 978 0 241 44562 4
Review by Mark Yon