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The Pursuit of William Abbey

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Member Reviews

Many thanks to NetGalley and the Publisher for providing me this eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Well, let me just say that while I was moved at points during the story, it certainly dragggged a bit too much in the middle for me to properly be engaged. If the pacing had been better, I think it would’ve hit me harder.

I dig the concept from the initial premise, and I think it was executed well enough for my expectations.

Am I glad I read this? Sure.
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This just felt...flat. Better in concept than in execution. And way too much melodramatic shouting. 

Claire North’s newest offering is part ghost story, part spy novel, part...speculative historical fiction, I suppose. Which should be an oxymoronic description, but somehow it fits here. 

I liked the idea of it, certainly, and in its more active moments, the story is propulsive. And yet I found myself struggling to care about the characters or the outcome and indifferent to the atmosphere. 

The relationship between William and Margo felt shrill at times and failed to evoke any emotion in me, and the concept of “truth tellers” failed to excite. Again, better in theory than in execution. 

Even Langa, Williams “curse” in human (undead?) form isn’t convincing as either a secret weapon or a villain and certainly not as both. 

And while the research that fleshed out the story was thorough and well-executed, the dialogue was shouty and maudlin and felt mostly like talking for talking’s sake. 

The book has some bright spots, but I much preferred Harry August.
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*DNF*

Thank you to Orbit and NetGalley for providing me with an early digital version of this book. Unfortunately, it didn't end up being for me, so I made the difficult decision to DNF it after trying to get into it over the course of more than a month. However, while it wasn't for me, I have the feeling that some people will really like this story.

I'd heard a lot of good things about Claire North, so when I first saw this book on NetGalley's newly added list I jumped at the opportunity to request it. Its genre listing was up my alley, and its premise sounded like it'd be pretty interesting. However, after downloading and trying to read this novel, I simply found that it was not for me. I wanted to like it, and wanted to be able to give it a good, thorough review, but I've struggled to find the interest to continue reading it and have so much else to read that I need to move on.

The writing is good, but it's not my cup of tea. This book is very slow, very descriptive and tough to follow. At least, it was for me. I'm not used to such descriptive writing, nor did I find it entertaining to read. It was more confusing and slow than anything, and while I tried to keep reading until it got better, I struggled.

I apologize for DNFing it, but I want to move on to something I'll enjoy more, and have hundreds of books I want to read, including several from NetGalley.
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Extremely intriguing and unique plot.  I wasn't sure how I'd like the historical fiction/fantasy combination but I enjoyed The Pursuit of William Abbey.  It is clear that the story was well researched and although it dragged at times, I would recommend this book.
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A solid and enjoyable read! With elements of magic/light fantasy, this novel explores grief, regret, and how actions can follow us throughout the course of our lives. There were some pacing issues for me, especially toward the middle of the book, but the end picked up the pace enough that my attention was brought back to the story. I'd recommend this for fans of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The First Fifteen Lives of Henry August, and Reincarnation Blues.
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I was hoping for a bit more suspense and otherworldliness from this. I’ve read the author’s other books and liked them. Though well-written, this is not my type of novel. Those who like romance and drama will enjoy it.
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The Pursuit of William Abbey is an interesting morality play about indifference, the costs of inaction, privilege, and the human condition. Released 12 Nov 2019 from Orbit, it's 464 pages and available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and ebook formats.

Claire North is an extremely gifted writer. Her pseudonymously published SF/urban fantasies knocked my socks off. This book combines magical realism, dark morality, colonialism, and a dizzying amount of meticulous historical research into a mostly cohesive whole.

Whilst reading, I really felt like I should be thinking that it was an important book. It is undoubtedly a very well written book. North's prose is descriptive and lyrical. The dialogue rings true and the descriptions of the places and social systems and wars are top notch. It's difficult for me to analyze what I didn't connect with about the book and I think it's the characters themselves. Especially main protagonist Abbey himself was not a very charismatic or sympathetic character. Honestly that's probably the whole point the author was trying to convey by letting the reader wrestle with the problem.

I found the pacing slow and the ending left me dissatisfied (again, back to the onus being on the reader to fill in the blanks and draw judgement (or turn the mirror on ourselves)). I'm not judging; this is an exceptionally well written book.

I would recommend it to philosophical readers who are up for a challenge. Despite the entirely disparate plots (seriously, not related in the least), the feelings this book engendered in me personally remind me a lot of the way I felt after reading Eco's iconic The Name of the Rose.

Four stars for me, probably five for most everyone who loves literary historical fiction.
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There was so much promise in the description of this novel and I couldn't wait to read it. Getting approved was the highlight of my day because I loved the idea of the main character being cursed because he stood by and did nothing while someone was lynched. It's the kind of story that you know is going to suck you in and be everything you want it to be. But when you start reading it's a slow start and I'm totally someone that will push through in hopes of a novel picking up and being more but the change in formatting between character POVs was too much for me. I'd rather have a novel that has 'CHARACTER NAME" at the top of a chapter to tell me who is now narrating instead of one chapter being bold and the next being regular text. It just pulled me out of the story because it seemed more like it was an accident that they hit a button and couldn't go back and fix it (like hitting caps lock and not wanting to lose everything that you wrote so you just go with it). It just didn't live up to my expectations and that was disappointing but that doesn't mean others shouldn't give it a shot.  Just push through because this novel really could have been great.
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I am a huge Claire North fan. Regardless of topic, her writing is lyrical and vivid and, at times, graphic. The Pursuit of William Abbey begins in the 1880s and continues into the first World War, while taking us around the world. North brings the era, the people, and the places alive for us, through her characters and descriptions.

William Abbey is cursed. He watched a boy be tortured and burned without doing or saying anything- this scene is devastating. As the mother kills her child to end his suffering, she sends out her curse and it lands on Abbey. As the blurb says, the shadow of the dead boy starts following him and when it catches him, the person he loves most will die. The person he loves most, not the person he should love, not the person he pretends to love, the person he truly loves most. Using modern transportation, he can stay ahead of the relentless, shuffling shadow, but he has to keep moving. The shadow also makes him a Truth-Teller. The closer the shadow is, the more he can see the truth in people’s hearts, can’t tell a lie, and when it’s too close all he can do is blurt out the truths of those around him in a stream of uncontrollable words. It’s a curse definitely, but others would also say a gift, and maybe even a condition to be exploited.

North wraps so much into this novel. First and foremost it’s about truth, good and bad, objective and subjective.

There is the truth we tell ourselves, she’d say, and then there is the reality of the world as it is, and that is always harder to see.

It’s also about racism, colonialism, and classism. Abbey is a European white man. Those who understand the most about his curse are women, are non-European, are not his kind of people. Abbey is not a sympathetic character. The first we learn about him is his acceptance of the racism around him, even if he is vaguely uncomfortable with it. He is selfish and bitter, and even though he is forced to tell the truth at times, he will lie when he can. He does good deeds, but not always out of altruism.

Above, I categorized The Pursuit of William Abbey as historical fantasy, and that’s true, although I don’t think only fantasy readers would enjoy it. The fantasy element is mystical and while it does drive the plot, it still feels real. It’s also a spy thriller. The powers that be, the people who run espionage rings are more than willing to take advantage of the Truth-Tellers they can lay their hands on, especially in the lead up to war. It’s also a bit of horror, with the black shadow hands clawing their way out of dead bodies.

This is not a quick read. It can be slow and meandering, but the second half does move a bit faster, as the thriller portion of the story kicks in. But for me, the pace matches the plot. It moves forward relentlessly but at the slower pace of the shadow and of the era.

I was a bit disappointed by the ending. There’s a lead up to a tense scene in a hospital room, with the sounds of the battle only about a mile away and the shadow coming closer, closer, but we’re not given any closure. Overall though, it’s a fabulous read and worth the time. In actuality, the ending fits the story well, it just left me with a bit of a “that’s it?” feeling.
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I was ecstatic when Orbit sent me this because I knew this was going to be a solid read that I would really enjoy. I was totally right! I read Touch by Claire North a few years ago and was blownaway by the detail of the world and what was explored. This book even had a call-back to other Claire North novels! It was such an interesting read and I am so happy I got to read it early. My opinions are my own and were not influenced by receiving this book from Orbit.

The premise of this book is what hooked me on the story initally. I am going to put the official synopsis here because I think it did a great job of summing the story up.

South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William.

William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.

The fantasy elements of the story were very original and interesting. William also becomes a truth-speaker from the curse, unable to stop the truth of other’s hearts from bursting from his lips whenever the shadow is near. The format was him telling his story to a nurse named Sister Ellis, while he is a doctor in a WWI hospital. The life-story component made the novel seem really fast-paced as his life was being told very fast,but the actual story was very slow and steady.

The mystery did take a few hundred pages to start being solved, but in those pages North’s world-building and story-telling really shined. Abbey’s perspective felt real and even when he made the wrong decisions the outcomes were always interesting. by virtue of the life-story format as in life, many people are introduced as unimportant side characters, but then blossom into full supporting characters in William’s life. He travels the world and every where he went the descriptions of the world were very vivid and showcased a snapshot of what life was life at the turn of the century. He travels to every inhabited continent and meets people from every walk of life.

The fantasy components leave room for North’s social commentary about how truth is always what people choose to believe and the late 1800’s is the perfect time because it was the height of the British Commonwealth and racism and classism was running rampant through the world. It also was conveniently a time of modern inventions like trains and telegrams, which allow William to outrun his shadow.

There were some elements in this book that would qualify as horror and the ending sequence of the book was quite dark and morose. I believe North is meaning to show the worst of humanity and how far some people will do to learn the truth, but for me it came off as almost unbelievable. There were decisions made by ordinary people to throw a mother out of a carriage in the middle of nowhere because she was “crazy” and the authorities are shown to be really corrupt, enough to arrest an entire family on the whim of a group of powerful people.

Finally the ending, while revealing everything, did end on a particularly weak note. It felt like this book that was slow-burning and so enjoyable, just went out with not even a fizzle. I needed a few more pages explaining more about the world during the war and why he was telling Sister Ellis the story, beyond her asking him to.

My complaints about this book are quite minor and since I enjoyed this book so much in the first 400 pages, I can ignore the final 20. I am very relieved that I enjoyed this book as much as I did Touch because I have The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August on my Buzzwordathon TBR, which I will be posting soon. I now need to read all of North’s other books if they are all this good. Who is you favourite author who you think is not talked about enough? Leave a comment down below. Happy Reading!

4.5 stars
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Dr. William Abbey’s trouble is threefold. First, he is a mediocre doctor at best in 1884. Much better at diagnosing disease than curing it. Second, he falls in love with a woman above his station, leading to debts and eventually exile to South Africa. While there, he watches the execution by fire of a young native boy, without comment. The boy’s mother curses the doctor for not stepping in to save her son. This leads to his third trouble, the Pursuit of William Abbey by the shade of the murdered boy. When the boy touches the doctor, one-by-one those the doctor loves most are killed. Dr. Abbey also now has the ability to read the inner thoughts of other nearby men. This ability attracts the attention of the British government, who have found others with his affliction and see him as a useful asset—rather than a broken man.

The Pursuit of William Abbey is a thought-provoking historical fiction slash horror slash espionage thriller. It is definitely a plot you have not seen before. The language used is perfect for this slow-boil of a novel moving steadily to an unknown conclusion as the boy chases the doctor around the world. My only complaint was that it had some parts in the middle where the pace might have been a bit too slow. Otherwise, if you are looking for something completely original, this book is a great choice. 4 stars!

Thanks to Orbit Books and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.
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I’m convinced: it’s literally impossible for Claire North to write a bad book. I think she’s just genuinely incapable of anything less than excellence. When she writes a sentence, it just comes out good. Every single time. Of this I am certain. Alternatively, there’s the much more mundane and likely scenario: she’s very, very good at proofing, has a wonderful editor and team behind her, and has honed her craft over many years and novels. However her frankly gorgeous writing originates, the result is the same: yet another brilliant novel being gifted to the world.

The plot is a fascinating mix of intrigue, social issues, and politics – all set on top of a deadly game of tag. The titular William Abbey has been cursed with the shadow of young boy who was burned to death by a mob as Abbey looked on. The shadow follows him at a shuffle… slow, but implacable. When the shadow reaches him, it uses him as a conduit to jump to the person he loves most and kill them. And then… it begins its journey again. Abbey must constantly be on the move in order to stay ahead of the shadow and protect the few friends he has remaining.

As the shadow approaches, Abbey gains a particular ability: to see into the hearts and minds of those around him. To discern and understand the truths by which they live. To understand the essence of what motivates them, their heart’s desire, their deepest and most closely-held secrets. The lines between Abbey and those around him blur until he becomes more of a mirror than a man. Their truths become his, and he cannot shut them out. The closer the shadow is to him, the stronger his compulsion towards truth becomes until he’s literally unable to cease speaking the truths of those around him. This is what ultimately lands him in trouble: truth-speakers are highly valued by the international espionage community, and he soon finds himself under the control of a group called The Nineteen and in the employ of the British Crown.

‘They interviewed me for two days before I began to dream my neighbours’ dreams again. Waking in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that this would be a good time to rock madly on the end of my bed. To howl. To march through the London streets looking for a fight. To get immensely drunk, find a brothel, visit old friends, write offensive letters to ancient, half-forgotten adversaries. Smash glass. Pray. Langa comes. He comes. He comes. I just lay there, wide awake, and understood that I was a prisoner in a gilded cage, and that my life would be spent running, and violating the hearts of men, and I did nothing until the morning came.’


With their hands and eyes guiding his actions, what ensues is a tale of treachery, betrayal, and self-reflection. Abbey is forced to face that he, too, is part of the machine that killed that boy at the Cape. He, too, is perpetuating this with every action he performs for the crown. As he goes on to meet other truth-speakers and sees the truth of their stories and backgrounds, he’s forced to reevaluate his choices. He’s duplicitous, sly, and does his best to support the things he believes in despite his circumstances. He becomes involved with libertine groups, vying for voice and representation. He falls in love with a woman who cannot love him in return. He looks into others and sees himself through their eyes.

As Abbey searches for a cure, a way to stop this shadow, his road in fact takes him back to the place he was originally cursed. On the Cape, when he finally tracks down the daughter of the woman who cursed him, she makes it clear that his curse is exactly what he deserved and no less. He is selfish in his desire to be free and has learned nothing. By removing the shadow, all he is seeking to do is that for which he and all the white colonizers are guilty of: assuming that the native population of Africa exists solely to serve him. “You just know black woman put shadow on you, black boy follow you, black woman forgive you. We – in your story. You do not know our story. You do not hear our story of when white men came and killed my brother. You do not see. Want everything to serve you. I will not. I will not serve you,” she says, as she sends Abbey along his way.

North’s prose weaves imagery and thoughts with seemingly-effortless grace and precision. Each sentence connects to the sentence before and after it. Paragraphs are merely one piece of the whole. It is almost impossible to pick apart a chapter; every line of this book is wholly integrated into the ones around it. I adore this style of writing, and I find that it helps me feel fully submerged within the atmosphere and story. North often utilizes a stream-of-consciousness style narrative to describe the overwhelming deluge of thoughts and emotion Abbey experiences. This is supremely effective, and brings forward the unique cadence of each person Abbey interacts with. It additionally serves to set these portions away from the standard narration without breaking flow or causing interruption. Where some authors might rely on formatting or italics, North uses style. In The Pursuit of William Abbey, North further pushes the mold by reordering events outside their chronological progression and presenting us with a highly unreliable narrator. This is a true piece of ergodic literature, requiring attention and effort on the part of the reader to untangle the story as it is presented.

The one aspect of this narrative that didn’t work as well for me was the pacing. Although I did enjoy the social commentary present within it and thoroughly enjoyed each page of writing, I found that the first half of the book seemed to flow a bit more slowly than I might have hoped. It’s not until the 50% mark that the underlying plot comes to the forefront. Prior to that, it feels like a series of small vignettes; although they are lovely to read and consume, I still felt that I was missing the meat of the book. Fortunately, after that juncture, the book immediately sped up and brought us back to the overarching narrative with a pleasant swiftness and efficiency that made the second half of the book a quick and lively read. Once the narrative hit its stride, I was fully engaged and eager to see how things would pan out.

North dives deep into the consequences of racism and colonialism. If it does not, perhaps, have the immediacy and brutality found in Queen of the Conquered, it nevertheless plays a pivotal role in the book. It doesn’t fully permeate, but it doesn’t shy away from addressing the consequences of the British empire. Through the lens of Abbey’s own experiences, we witness the double standards the brown-skinned people of Africa are held to. Justice is skewed, arbitrary, and horrifically racist. In fact, this is in large part the origin of his shadow: when a young black boy, Langa, was discovered kissing the daughter of a wealthy white man, the town immediately cried scandal and dragged him to his death.

‘Nor was the condition of the Bantu peoples within Natal or the neighbouring Boer states slavery, for lo – if a white man killed a black man, beat a black child to death, assaulted a black woman or burnt their property, they would duly be taken before the court of law. There, guarded by white men, they would be judged by their white peers, their plea considered by a white judge, and there might even upon some occasion be a fine passed down, if the case was considered severe. If matters got that far. Of course, should a black man kill a white man, it was unlikely that the wandering lawmen of the wild grasslands would have anything to say on the matter. The white men would come with rifle and rope, and before all his family they would most likely torture that same black man to death, leaving his mutilated body for crows. And if, incensed by this, his black neighbours turned against the white and drove the farmers from the land, impaling hand and head with spears hoarded in the secret places of the kraal, those bruised survivors of Boer or English stock would flee to Pretoria, Durban, Kimberley or the Cape and report on the feared uprising of the natives, and there would come marching with drum and Maxim gun all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men, and the vultures would flock in from mountain and far-off withered perch to feast royally on a spread of flesh.’


The Pursuit of William Abbey is a fundamentally human book. It takes a slice of history and examines it through a lens of personal truths: the politicians who think themselves the epitome of righteousness, the priests who come closer to god even as they dehumanize anyone with different skin tones. These appear as true to these people, even if they are not perhaps objectively so. This is a study in morality and in the flawed ways we see ourselves. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys beautifully written, thoughtful novels focused on morality, history, and humanity. This is a slow, winding road of a book – some patience and willingness to untangle a twisted narrative will be needed. This is not a quick, easy weekend read… but it’s one that is gorgeous and rewarding. Dense, but delightful.
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Thank you to NetGellay and Orbit for providing me a eARC in exchange for an honest review of The Pursuit of William Abbey. Claire North has become the master of an invent setup and a thrilling pursuit blended with political conspiracy with vast reaching implications. The book is told by the titular William Abbey as he speaks his back story of his Curse to Sister Ellis. The first person viewpoint changes from time to time to Sister Ellis who provides the feedback of an outsider on the personality and condition of William Abbey. 

William Abbey was cursed by the Mother of a murdered boy and thus the pursuit begins. When the shadow of the dead boy touches William Abbey, the truth of his heart is revealed and someone he loves dies. William must stay well ahead of his unrelenting shadow, and as the shadow approaches him, William is able to tell of the truth of the heart of those around him. William is recruited as a British spy, and it is with this training that he learns of other "truth speakers"

My real fascination with this book came after having read over half of it. William has a philosophical conversation with Hirano, another truth speaker, about what it is to know the truth of someone else's heart, and what truth truly does to someone. Before this section of the book, the plot was flat, hard to follow, and slow. This is where things pick up, alliances are forged, and treachery abounds.

Ultimately, I always enjoy Claire North's writing.
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This was easily my most anticipated book of the year. Claire North is one of the few authors whose books instantly jump to the top of my TBR, and The Pursuit of William Abbey in no way disappointed my lofty expectations.

This novel marks the first time I can recall North using a framing device for the story, and it’s used to brilliant effect. A nurse near the front lines of WWI encounters the mysterious Dr. William Abbey, who shares with her his life’s story.

Dr. Abbey is cursed. He’s constantly pursued by his shadow, the ghost of a dead boy he saw murdered in South Africa. If his shadow touches him, the person he loves most will die. And as the shadow nears, Dr. Abbey begins to hear the truths of others’ hearts.

Each night while Dr. Abbey tells his story to the nurse, his shadow grows closer. Each night, Dr. Abbey loses a little more of his ability to lie, which in turn influences his story. We’re left to wonder how much of his early story is true and how much is altered to present himself in a favorable light. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly truthful, making Dr. Abbey one of the more unique unreliable narrators I’ve encountered.

As always, North takes a single fascinating idea and explores it from every angle. Some characters see their shadow as a blessing, a way to stay close with a departed relative or use the power of truth seeking to their advantage. Others, like Dr. Abbey, see it as a curse. A constant danger to one’s sanity and loved ones.

And then there are those who seek to weaponize it. Wealthy nations can use truth seekers as the ultimate spies, forever a short train ride ahead of their shadow. “Civilized” truth seekers are applauded, while those from less affluent backgrounds are exploited.

North’s writing is brimming with anger for this exploitation, offering a scathing critique of capitalism, imperialism, and racism. It’s interesting how truth—widely considered to be a desirable, moral concept—can be used to fuel greed and destroy empathy. Our personal truths are rarely as objective as we believe. It is possible—even common—to believe contradictory things simultaneously. In today’s world where facts themselves can be seen as mutable weapons, the nature of “personal truths” resonates powerfully.

At times it felt like the story emphasized ideas at the expense of emotional investment in the characters. And yet, North has a talent for effortless characterization through dialogue, small mannerisms, and relatable motivations.

If truth is the primary theme of this story, love is a close second. Love keeps the truth seekers running from their shadows, drives how they form relationships, and shapes how they use their abilities. Love is both the axe hanging over their heads and their motivation to persevere. And like truth, it’s not a concept easily understood.

Of all North’s previous work, The Pursuit of William Abbey feels most similar to The Sudden Appearance of Hope. It mixes the fantastic with a hard look at our society, and will likely leave you grappling with the issues addressed long after you finish the last page. After all, there’s a reason Claire North was one of the select few writers initially approached to novelize Netflix’s Black Mirror.

If a story about the nature of truth, love, colonialism, and revenge sounds intriguing, consider giving this story a shot. It’s a powerful, brilliant critique of today’s society and a damn fine story.

You want to know my personal truth? I loved this book, and I hope you do too.
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As always, Claire knocks it out of the park. Gorgeous writing!

disclaimer: Claire's short stories have been featured in an anthology I edited.
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I was not the biggest fan of this, I just couldn't get into the story. Oh well, maybe her next book will be for me :) which stinks because I was a big fan of the first fifteen lives of henry august!
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William Abbey is a white man living in Victorian Era South Africa. A South Africa that is torn apart by white colonists and he's blind to the suffering surrounding him from the native Africans. Until he is cursed to see the truth in everyone's heart. The curse takes the shape of a boy who he watched on the sidelines as a mob burned him. Whenever that shadow of the boy reunites with him, someone he loves dies. So William Abbey has to run. All the time. This leads to him to become a spy for England. A selfish one who is not good at his job.

I love this book. I love that William Abbey starts being blind to other people's problems and ends up having a deep understanding for people. Because we also find out through him the stories of people surrounding him, the world feels alive with three-dimensional people. There is no all knowing person because everyone is scared of something. 

It's interesting when he meets people with the same curse as he and their conversations are only through using their powers. 

My one problem is that there are times when it did slow a bit. But when the pacing picks up then I had trouble putting down the book.
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Thank you Netgalley and Publishers for granting me early access to "The Pursuit of William Abbey".

I'm currently in the middle of a major move, and will definitely come back at a later time and write out a full review and rating. 

Thank you so much!
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I enjoyed the writing style which i found refined and somewhat elegant and I found the characters relatable and interesting but the story dragged for me, I do recommend the book to all fiction lovers
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Another beautifully written piece by North, although this might be the darkest of her novels that I've read.  The complexity of the story is enough to be so unique and engaging but not so much as to be difficult to enjoy.  I especially appreciated the span on the storyline - both across time and around the world - and thought the sheer diversity of the characters was absolutely wonderful.  

I received an ARC from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
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