(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)
Have you ever thought about where society would be if Mother Theresa had had another 80 years to continue her humanitarian work and minister to the needs of the poor? If Leonardo da Vinci had had more time to study and invent and create? If Albert Einstein had had another lifetime in which to contribute to the field of theoretical physics?
In First, humanity has figured out “a way for a select few to live forever so that their talents [won’t] die when they [do].” The work of these “select few,” known as Firsts, is not limited by a short lifespan. Instead, the Firsts are immortal, able to carry on with their duties as ambassadors, humanitarians, inventors, etc. with no interruptions by death.
It is tradition for each First to choose a young boy or girl to serve as his or her Second. Being chosen is a great honor, as Seconds are granted Absolution of their ancestors’ crimes. What are these crimes, you ask? Well, 200 years ago, Texas rebelled against the rest of the United States, leading to a bitter war and the eventual subjugation of all of Texas. Even though the war took place two centuries ago, modern-day Texans are still forced to labor as slaves as punishment for the sins of their forefathers.
The only escape from this life of servitude is to be chosen as a Second, which comes at a price: a Second must leave his or her home and go to live with their First, never to see their family or friends again. Despite this stipulation and the fact that most children have no understanding of what being a Second entails, most jump at the chance to be Absolved.
First is told from the alternating points of view of Socrates, a First, and Mira, the 17-year-old girl he chooses as his Second. Socrates is hands down what I loved most about the book. As the first of the Firsts, he’s over 500 years old and has great insight about the history of Project ReGenesis and the motivations of the people who started it. I found this fascinating, as I really, really like the idea that influential people can live on and contribute to the world without their efforts being abbreviated by mortality.
It’s not just Socrates’ insight that I appreciated – I liked his personality as well. He’s gruff, kind, and nostalgic about the old days when “antiques” such as ballpoint pens and motorcycles were still in use. His health is failing and his memory is slipping, but he clings fiercely to his independence despite his reliance on a service dog and cane. He’s got a sense of humor, as shown by the lovely banter between him and his partner Ellie, who is also a First. The relationship between these two is something else I really enjoyed. There’s an abiding fondness and familiarity between Socrates and Ellie that comes from centuries of companionship, and it warmed my heart.
As much as I liked Socrates, I wasn’t crazy about the sections of the book narrated by Mira. It’s not that she’s an unlikable character, just an inconsistent one. In fact, this was a problem not only with Mira, but with the novel as a whole.
Several of the characters seemed to change moods and beliefs frequently, swinging from furious to flirtatious to depressed to passionate. This left my head spinning, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether all of the characters were suffering from bipolar disorder. On one page, for example, Mira calls Socrates a monster, but just a few pages later she’s helping him and insisting that she doesn’t consider him a monster. Likewise, there’s a scene in which we get this quote: “Anger smolders to life, but I squash it down. This is no place to get into an argument. I jump to my feet. If Will and the others think I’m going to just sit back for this, they’re the idiots.” She contradicts herself in the space of a single paragraph – she says she isn’t going to argue, and yet she jumps out of her seat to do that very thing.
The inconsistencies extend to the plot as well. Sometimes the key to the Firsts’ immortality is treated like a closely guarded secret, and other times it is appears to be common knowledge. Likewise, Mira’s status as a Second leads to her being alternately pampered and treated like trash, which left me confused.
Another problem I had with First is that I really struggled with the whole Texas / rebellion / Absolution concept. I have a hard time believing that the entire state of Texas would still be enslaved for crimes that their forefathers had committed 200 years ago. So much of the plot hinges on this construct that the lack of believability made it really difficult for me to get into the story.
In spite of all this, I still have to say that I love the basic premise of First. This, plus a superb ending to the book (it’s a powerful, moving, and fitting conclusion), means that I will most likely be checking out the next book in this Live Once trilogy.
A free copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.