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I woke up too early and saw some fluffy white stuff was falling from the sky. Lost myself in a book (Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is so absolutely excellent) and when I looked up the snow was done. You can’t tell it was here at all, but it was. Then I made myself an espresso, a rare weekday treat, left it hot in the steel cup while I showered. Came out and it was gone. The warm, lingering aroma and a perky boyfriend flattered I’d woken up early to make him an espresso greeted me instead. Clearly he doesn’t know me at all.

I have a bunch of sisters and live in a city with millions of people where getting sat on on the subway happens and there’s not much you can do about it but wonder why you, among all the other seated riders, keep getting “accidentally” sat on. Sometimes I feel like Kevin McCallister at the beginning of Home Alone when his family eats all the cheese pizza and he has a fit. “When I grow up and get married I’m living alone. You hear me? I’m living alone. I’m living alone…” For now, I read to escape to a faraway land where strangers don’t sit on me and stealing my morning espresso is a crime punishable by making me dinner and dessert for a week month.

Patrick Ness’s newest book More Than This presents no such place. He gives us much more: a story that’ll take you by surprise and make you look at your life with a suspicious “Huh”.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

More Than This by Patrick Ness

The opening scene introduces us to 17-year-old Seth as he drowns in an icy, rocky ocean. He knows he’s alone with no chance of rescue. He knows he’s going to die and he does. It’s a moment you don’t normally get in fiction, the hero’s last, and it’s so realistic you shudder for Seth. As a reader, you’re almost giddy with that wonderful sense that in this story anything can happen.

Post-death is a confusing time for Seth, who wakes up in his childhood town on the English coast. He’s naked save for some oddly placed metallic bandages, and completely alone. The town is deserted and covered in dust. Is he in purgatory? Hell? Why and for how long and where are all the other dead people? Seth is consumed with questions and the reader is right there with him because it’s so quiet in this empty place with one character whose mind keeps going to the dark side. The mood is eerie and you’re sure there’s something out there to fear.

I had to do some work to get into this story at first. Part of the reason is that it’s hefty and the back of my mind kept wondering how he filled so many pages with nothingness. Clever author. Ness gives us glimpses into the life and sad family he left behind. Lovely and tragic memories come back to him in overwhelming bursts, but the memories won’t answer our questions, they seem to offer no clues.

A Monster Calls is the only other Ness book I’ve read, but I’m a fan. His writing style is airy and kind of bossy and I like it. Thinking about what a book is, Seth observes:

It’s a world all on its own, too. … A world made of words, Seth thinks, where you live for a while.

I’m not telling you more about the plot because it would spoil this carefully layered story. At the heart is the commonly thought sentiment that there has to be more to life than this, “this” referring to anything that leads us to question existence in the first place.

Some of the best books offer little nuggets of life advice like extra prizes in the cereal box, not that I still buy kids’ cereal – Fruity Pebbles is for very sophisticated palates. Anyway, a friend’s advice to Seth is worthy wisdom for anyone.

Know yourself and go out swinging.

Reading More Than This is not unlike watching The Matrix for the first time. You will snicker knowingly, may want to spend less time in front of a glowing screen after. Parts reminded me of Charles de Lint’s The Mystery of Grace and Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, but this is an entirely unique story.

(Hey, “Seth” and “death” rhyme. Do you think Ness or Ari Berk, both authors of different death-ish 17-year-old Seths, chose the name for this reason?)

EDIT: The Seth in Ari Berk’s Death Watch isn’t a Seth at all, but a Silas. Thanks, for pointing that out, Ari Berk! Berk’s book also rocks, you can read the review right here.

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