When 2015’s Touch begins, things are not going well for protagonist Kepler, who has just been shot twice by a complete stranger. Things are worse for Kepler’s host, Josephine Cebula, She is trapped in her own dying body; Kepler can escape into any living body within arm’s reach.
Kepler has no idea why the stranger attacked. The body-hopper does know that, for some reason, killing Josephine appeared to be as or more important than killing Kepler. Possessing the killer is easy enough, which gives Kepler the killer’s effects to rummage through for clues but that turns out to be just the first and least step on the way to finding Kepler’s real enemy.
Centuries ago Kepler discovered their ability to move from body to body at a touch. When they were attacked and beaten to death on a London street, they were surprised to find themselves in the body of their killer. It did not take Kepler long to understand what they had done and not much longer to master their new-found ability. Since then, Kepler has lived a succession of rewarding borrowed lives in a succession of borrowed bodies, male and female.
Kepler is in no way unique; there is a whole, hidden society of body-hoppers (or as some of their enemies call them, ghosts). They live unseen by most people, using the bodies of the humans around them as whim and need drive. The unsuspecting have no defense against the ghosts. Someone who knows that ghosts exist and understands the limits of their powers (in particular, that the body-hopping requires skin-to-skin touch) has fair odds against them.
In the past, Kepler’s mortal enemies have been religious functionaries with at best a confused understanding of Kepler and ghostkind. Aquarius is something new: organized, well staffed, and armed with modern science. The assassin, Coyle, has personal, legitimate, reasons to loath parasites like Kepler and is not inclined to assist his possessor. However, Coyle has only lately come to the life of an assassin and has left a trail of clues for Kepler to follow.
Clues that suggest that Aquarius isn’t the true enemy, only a tool….
I thought this was going to be my very first Clair North novel. In the specific sense of “a novel published under that pen name.” I was correct on the Clair North bit, but in a broader sense, I was dead wrong; The person behind the name Claire North has used a lot of pen names; I have been reading her (and liking her books) as Kate Griffin. Huh.
North has dealt herself a challenging hand here, given that Kepler by their nature lives by stealing something irreplaceable—lifespan—from their victims. Every moment Kepler uses a host’s body is time that host will never get back. Kepler and their kind have appropriated decades, even entire lives. It would be easy for North to leave her readers cheering for Aquarius to find and destroy all the ghosts. Yet, Despite the nature of her protagonist, North still manages to convince the reader that what happens to Kepler matters.
North manages the trick in two ways: first is that Kepler isn’t entirely uncaring towards the humans who are their natural prey. They try to care for their hosts rather than simply using them up. Kepler is capable of friendship with and affection towards those around them. Indeed, a large part of their anger towards Aquarius is because that enemy went out of its way to kill Josephine, a host Kepler loved (whatever that word means for ghosts).
The second trick up the author’s sleeve is that Kepler isn’t the worst monster in this book, not by far.
Although the final confrontation didn’t work as well for me as it probably will for others, until that point I found this an engaging supernatural chase novel: Bourne meets Fallen1. The book was good enough to make me want to read North’s previous book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, so that’s a thing that is going to happen.