84K has an interesting concept, and one that will certainly resonate with a lot of readers. Unfortunately, the execution fell short for me. I gave it a month and several attempts because it was an ARC for review, but then ultimately decided it wasn’t for me at all. I found the shifts in timelines to be confusing, and I found myself quickly irritated by the coyness around the main character’s true identity. His name is Theo, but he wasn’t born Theo. He actually took on his college friend’s identity at some point for some reason I never bothered to find out, but what irritated me was how all this character was so often referred to as ‘the man who wasn’t born Theo.’ We get it; just assign him a name already and be done with it. I DNF’d (did not finish) at page 92 out of 480 — to be fair, this is around the time the action started picking up, but I realized I no longer wanted to read further.
That being said, I also realize other readers may likely enjoy it more than I did. It’s very high concept dystopian / social satire / speculative fiction, and certainly tackles very relevant issues. In the world of 84K, crimes literally come with a price tag. If you’re rich enough to afford the fine ($84,000 for murder), you can literally get away with murder. North drives this point home with chilling precision when an assassin-for-hire calmly calls 911 to confess to a murder, and waits for the police to pick them up because they know their employer will pay the fine. Conversely, if you’re too poor to pay the fine, you could get a heavy sentence for shoplifting.
Theo works at an agency that processes the fines for crimes. I thought this was compelling — I can see how soul draining such a job can be, and there was a strong passage where Theo had to process the payment for a murder while at the same time process the sentencing of a woman convicted of shoplifting something petty from a store. North often depicts Theo’s workday in terms of costs, listing the amounts for the various types of crimes, and while this felt tedious to me at times (possibly part of North’s point?), it’s also a chilling reminder of how dispassionately crimes are viewed in this world.
The story picks up when a woman is murdered and leaves behind a daughter she claims is Theo’s. The daughter is lost somewhere in the foster care system — similar to North’s rather pointed take on the justice system, the foster care system in 84K is similarly hellish. Foster children can be used by parents to make profit, mostly by selling off their services for entertainment purposes. This is what happens to this daughter, and part of why the mother, before she was killed, was so invested in trying to find and rescue her.
Conceptually, it’s very compelling, and I think readers who enjoy more cerebral speculative fiction may enjoy it. It just really wasn’t for me.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.