AUDIO REVIEW: The Original, by Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal

original

Genre: SF Crime

Publisher: Mainframe

Runtime: 3hrs 24mins

Narrator: Julia Whelan

Release Date: 14/09/2020

Verdict: 4/5

Holly Winseed wakes up in a hospital to find that her husband is dead, and that she was the killer. Or at least, her original was. The new Holly is a clone, and now has only days to bring her original to justice. But with even her own identity a lie, how can Holly know what is real, and what is not . . ?

 Though I still think his doorstopper fantasy novels are his best works, there is no doubt that Brandon Sanderson is also carving out a niche in the world of science fiction novellas. The Original marks a new diversification on that front, as this novella-length story is currently available only in audio. I’m less familiar with the work of Mary Robinette Kowal, but this certainly has a different feel to a lot of Sanderson’s work, so I assume that to her hand behind the pen. It’s more character-driven, though the plot and world are still strong, and there’s a stronger focus on emotion. In hindsight, this could be why the audio doesn’t quite work for me.

On the positive side, Sanderson and Kowal have built an intriguing near-future world. one where everyone lives in their own, specially themed version of reality, and where death is a choice made only by a view. The glimpses we get of people’s individual themes show a wide variety of lifestyles, from noir to fairytales to cartoons. It’s a brilliant idea, and I particularly enjoyed a scene where Holly moves through a disco, catching glimpses of various themes as she comes into contact with different dancers. The central conceit of creating clones to hunt down murderers does strain my suspension of disbelief, but not quite to breaking point, and the consequences are generally quite well thought through.

As you might expect of a novella, the plot is fairly simple. I predicted the main twist early on, but a few of the side ones took me by surprise, and built together a strong conclusion. The actual ending is ambigous in the way only a shorter work can get away with, with just enough clues for the listener to reach their own decision about what truly happened. Most of the story is given over to a character study of Holly, played wonderfully by Julia Whelan. The struggle with missing memories brings to mind the Bourne franchise, and so too does the thriller aspect. The differences between the two Hollies make for a neat character arc, though perhaps more time with the original could have benefited my enjoyment.

Ultimately, I feel this is a strong story in a medium that just doesn’t work for me. This isn’t quite a traditional audiobook. There is background music, and the music effects in the disco scene I mentioned earlier isn’t actaully a terrible song. But the single narrator style doesn’t work for me, regardless of how good Whelan is at switching between characters. Throw in a few sound effects and a full cast, and I’d have enjoyed it a whole lot more.

As it stands, The Original is a riveting thriller, but one that didn’t quite hit the spot for me. Nevertheless, Sanderson and Kowal have established a partnership that I’ll be following with great interest.

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