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On Books

by Sheree Renée Thomas
 

Of Hope and Heroism

We find ourselves at the crossroads, in a time when people are reaching for other worlds, other ways of seeing. Rather than remain within the known boundaries of realism, readers and viewing audiences are actively seeking stories and creations across genres that are too often discussed as if they belong solely in the realm of childhood innocence. But with ecological/environmental shifts, societal upheaval, and accelerated global change, the people will do as they always have, seek refuge in the imagination.

Fantasy is an essential part of the human psyche, for it is in our dreams that we express our unconscious needs and desires, and it is in this remarkable realm where we stretch ourselves, expanding our minds and mental processes to problem-solve and create new solutions, new paths forward.

Andrea Hairston is a storyteller who understands the two-edged sword of the human psyche, its darkness and its light. With a firm hold of our present moment and an appreciation of our shared past, Hairston has written us a remarkable fantasy of hope and heroism, one that celebrates the frightened who face the impossible, the flawed but noble heroes who lift our spirits up even while they remain hidden in plain sight.

After reading Master of Poisons (Tor.com, hardcover, $27.99, 512 pages, ISBN 978-1-250-26054-3), I found myself no longer quite as eager to read the same dystopias that treat environmental destruction and relentless societal upheaval as inevitable. The wonderful worldbuilding, linguistics, and intriguing magical system made me think of the works of Tad Williams, Suzette Haden Elgin, and N.K. Jemisin. Even with wizard warriors and pirates, griots-in-training, elephants, crows, and bees and spies, the novel offers a lush realism that speaks to hard truths about the accumulation of power and comfort over equity and compassion while filtering it through a lens of the fantastic.

You know that you are in for an epic tale from the novel’s opening:

We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence or imminent destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own. Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky? So we twist every story to preserve our faith.

In this work, the astonishing natural world of the Arkhysian Empire echoes the beauty of our own, with salty sea and floating shadow cities that reveal unique possibilities that suggest other limits.

With prose that is as clear as it is beautiful, Hairston offers us unforgettable characters who face environmental challenges that echo our own. There are two kinds of leadership represented, and readers are left to contemplate the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. In search of a lost magical Lahesh spell, “conjure that might break a mind,” a cure for the encroaching poisonous desert to heal the land, Djola is an exiled proud, shrewd wizard. Armed with his mother tongue, Anawanama, and the powerful magic of Xhalan Xhala, he is willing to risk what he holds most dear if it will save his family and his adopted world.

Tragically sold away by her own family to apprentice with Green Elders, Awa, a brave but anxious Garden Sprite, struggles to know herself and her limits in a land that seeks to marginalize and shrink her. As a smoke-walker she holds a special gift, the power to navigate between worlds, the material world and Smokeland, the realm of the spirits. Part adventure and nautical quest, the novel creates a balancing act between fear and courage, anger and serenity. There are chapters told from the point of view of animals and natural elements, and the concept of a nation having to rectify “spirit debts” is intriguing. Readers who are eager to see vivid, fully rendered high fantasy will be delighted, as will those who appreciate queer and nonbinary characters, vesons, that are not treated as set dressing and do far more than mere representation. Between the tension and mounting danger, the richness of the worldbuilding, even down to the nut butter, ripe fruit, and protective bees, the author’s imagination is stunning. The writing never fails you, never leaves you in the dark for long as mysteries are carefully revealed, and the complex magical, sentient flora and fauna, politics and machinations, revelations and new alliances unfold with Hairston’s skilled hand and masterful voice. Master of Poisons teaches us how to survive at the crossroads. If you are feeling down, this is a work that will transport and lift you.

*   *   *

Prophesies and Promises

Rebecca Roanhorse’s new novel, Black Sun (Saga Press, hardcover, $27.95, 454 pages, ISBN 978-1-534-43767-8), burrows into the ancient myths and matriarchal clans of pre-Colombian America. Even if I had never enjoyed her provocative Hugo and Nebula award-wining Apex story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian American Experience™” or her fun first novel, Trail of Lightning, I would have picked up Black Sun instantly on the strength of John Piccacio’s gorgeous cover art alone. A blue-black raven face bursting with golden stars against an ebony sky, it certainly sparks the imagination; however, it is the array of ancestral rites and reborn gods, cliff cities inspired by the ancient Anasazi, woman sea captains, a dash of romance, and plenty of intrigue that persuades you to read on.

A rare celestial event coincides with an annual celebration that sets off a series of actions and intertwined fates. A dead god is said to return, marking the end and the new beginning of a world, and the signs point to its arrival, given a solar eclipse. Set in the Meridian, in the religious city of Tova, amongst the clans of the Sky Made and the Watchers, the city of Cuecola, the Coyote’s Maw, and the Obregi Mountains, we meet wondrous beings. My favorites were the giant crows as big as dragons, but there are also water striders, winged serpents, and eagles. There is also a considerable amount of magic—those who can read the skies, sing water to calm the sea, communicate and command crows.

While it took a while for me to become genuinely invested in the characters (multiple geographical time-leaps), there is a cleverness to the way the novel’s various narrative threads are structured that pays off in the end, setting the stage for the next volume in the Between Earth and Sky series. I am a sucker for multiple point-of-view protagonists, an old technique for keeping the storytelling fresh. And while not all of the novel’s four main characters held my attention with the same intensity, they are richly drawn and mostly memorable. The book begins with an increasingly disturbing introduction to Serapio, a character whose free will and destiny becomes a question as the events unfold. Blind, he has the power to call the shadows within. We are told that he was hated and feared, but not respected. As a child he is subjected to a gruesome ritual by his own mother, Saaya, for reasons that become clear as the novel moves along. Readers who shy away from body horror might be tempted to skirt the edges of this section, but it offers background character development that is essential. What pulled me in was an awareness of how those with multiple heritages might be chastised and challenged. As an Afro-Indigenous writer herself, Roanhorse carefully explores on the page the delicate dance of those who don’t quite fit comfortably in others’ preconceived notions of identity. It is clear from Serapio’s journey that he will need to choose one of his own before the series ends.

Xiala, the kick-ass seafaring Teek captain with a magical voice, is the kind of imperfect character who makes you feel as if you are eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. We first meet her in jail, where both she and readers are surprised to discover her. Her path is connected closely with the mysterious Serapio and is something that I enjoyed seeing play out amidst their journey together.

A Watcher and powerful Sun Priest, Naranpa, seems to want to revolutionize her world, but that isn’t as clear given the focus on her uninteresting relationship to a former lover. She is also the character that I felt the most distance from—perhaps the author’s intention, given readers are likely to see some of these characters again. Even so, Naranpa’s internal struggle around her power has potential for a more dramatic and compelling exploration. Roanhorse writes,

She felt her power close, the wonder of the universe and the wheel of the sky at her fingertips. It was almost enough to make her believe in the old ways and the old gods. If someone asked her now, she could divine their future from the lay of the stars as easily as she drew breath. . . . She wished that power allowed her to divine her own future . . .

Okoa, of the Carrion Crow clan, struggles with the burdens of leadership and must decide whether to pursue peace or raise his hands to war and violence. Each of these characters have a lonely streak in them, as they don’t easily fit in the worlds in which they were born. This theme of loneliness and seeking, of trust and betrayal, and the many ways we reach for intimacy is a strength of the work. Between the Dry Earther pits of the Coyote’s Maw and the far-flung islands, the book is full of great atmospheric background settings and eyeball kicks that keep the various stories moving along.

This is a work of prophesies and promises, darkness and divinity. With its deeply layered worldbuilding, attention to the pluralities of human expression and connection, Roanhorse’s Indigenous Futurism is welcome at a time when Own Voices work is celebrated more than ever. Coined by the scholar and editor Grace Dillon (Walking the Clouds, 2012) in homage to Afrofuturism, this work defies the “lost tribe,” “last of their race” colonialist creations that were part of the genre’s legacy. In the past, indigenous communities were treated as if they had no futures, rooted in others’ narrow, idyllic fantasies. Black Sun reminds us of the vibrant, living cultures among us and the rich depths of their history and lore. Today the hope for even more Indigenous Futurism burns bright.

*   *   *

A Shout Heard Round the World

Imagine a story filled with haints and hellish horror, spirits and Southern folklore, mother tongues and slave narratives—all laced with sharp socio-political commentary, some welcome laugh-aloud humor, magic (lots of magic!) and a whole lot of old fashioned shoot ’em up-bang-bang action and adventure. If you can comfortably squeeze all that richness into your mindscape, then you are going to want to run to the bookstore to get yourself a copy of historian P. Djèlí Clark’s new novella, Ring Shout or Hunting Ku Kluxes in the End Times (Tor.com, hardcover, $19.99, 181 pages, ISBN 978-76702-8).

Short but bittersweet, this is a work you will want to read in one sitting. I found myself spellbound, fully locked in, engulfing each page, ready for the next. There is dark magic, deals with the devil, chimera-like, carnivorous demons, and a big Baddie. Never knew a story about mollywhopping the Klan could be so subversively funny, but in Clark’s gifted hands, the most difficult subject matter is brushed with gold dust and sunlight.

I’m Southern, despite my long detour in New York, and I like my Southern weird. Clark delivers the strangeness, but it is also clear from the writing that somebody from down home had Clark’s back, because this is no faux Southern-fried folktale winking every other line.

Clark’s latest historical fantasy novella showcases language that pivots from English, African American Vernacular, transliterated and untranslated Gullah. It offers us wonderful storytelling and an authenticity and music that rings true to even the most critical ear.

All of them—men, women, even little baby Klans—down there grinning like, picnic on a Sunday. Got all kinds of fireworks—sparklers, Chinese crackers, sky rockets, and things that sound like cannons. A brass band competing with that racket, though everybody down there I swear clapping on the one and the three. With all the flag-waving and cavorting, you might forget they was monsters.

With so many terrifying things going on, you might also forget that traditionally, a ring shout is a West African group dance of jubilation, celebration. In this novella, Clark retools it to become a kind of living, kinetic spell, where Shouters conjure up and tap into otherworldly magic for their own ends. Performed by the enslaved and free Black church revivalists in the South, dancers formed a group circle, shuffling counterclockwise as they shouted out a rhythmic call and response. Punctuated with hand claps and sometimes ululations, this performance is still alive today, a living witness to the African retentions in Black American culture that are too often discussed as if they are absent or never existed. Clark reminds us that there is much of Africa in America—and it will save you, too.

With the kind of battle-weary banter that comes from those acquainted with blood and war, we are introduced to three unusual, bootlegging young women who I loved right away. The narrator is Maryse Boudreaux, a monster-slayer who can swing a magical sword and speak to spirits, the “Aunties.” Sadie, a character who is hilarious and infinitely entertaining, is a sharpshooter skilled with “Winnie,” her Winchester rifle. “Chef,” aka Cordelia Lawrence, is a Harlem Hellfighter, a World War I veteran who cooks bombs and barbecues dogs to attract the supernatural monsters—“Buckrah devils”— that are the center of the work. Together they hunt down Klansmen, not only your ordinary domestic terrorists but also a demonic breed they conjured up, known as Ku Kluxes. The idea that supernatural monsters would masquerade as real life monsters, the men who violently attempted to terrorize Black families from exercising their rights as citizens, is brilliant.

Off the page, the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865 by Nathan Bedford Forrest and memorialized in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. Ironically, Forrest’s monument was removed from his grave in Memphis in 2017, but his legacy lives on. The film, screened at the White House by Woodrow Wilson, the 1900s version of Trump, demonized Black men and women to justify the end of Reconstruction, third-class citizenship, and the age of Jim Crow. In the novella we discover that the Klan conjured up the demonic Ku Kluxers in a spell designed to unleash even more brutal terror on unsuspecting Black Americans in Macon, Georgia. Hot on the trail of the strange creatures, Maryse, Sadie, and Chef soon discover that the Klan has an even more diabolical plan that could be apocalyptic.

Clark takes the bullets and the noose, the iron slags and silver of American history to reimagine a dark era in the not so distant past. His Nightriders with sorcery remind one of the secret lodges and police of Matt Ruff’s 2016 Lovecraft Country and Misha Green’s recent fantastic adaptation of the novel as a television series. But Clark’s creation is uniquely his own, a mélange of childhood memories, African American culture, and living testimonies. All of these works offer a not-so-subtle reminder that the ghosts of the past live on with us today. In these pages, “time is funny” like that. Beneath its pulpy layers of madcap mayhem and monstrosities, readers will find themselves like Auntie Jadine, contemplating the different ways a body can love, can hate, “living in the now, the yesterday, and tomorrow all at once.”

*   *   *

Diving into Drexciya

Music inspires art in a myriad of other forms, literature not being the least of them. Drexciya, a Detroit techno-electro group founded by James Stinson and Gerald Donald, is just one inspiration for the source code of a riveting short novella, a work that is in turns meditative and moving. Written by Rivers Solomon with musicians Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes of the rap group clipping., The Deep (Saga Press, paper, $14.99, 166 pages, ISBN 978-1-250-17534-2) is a lyrical Middle Passage tale, more conceptional than traditional, about generational trauma and collective memory, about the burdens of history and the struggle to define oneself.

The origin story for The Deep is an odyssey of its own. Its roots reach back across the ocean of time to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. If you have heard of the African American folktale about the slaves who landed in America but walked back across the sea, returning to Africa, or those who dove or were tossed into the Atlantic’s watery depths only to survive, then you have a sense of the psychological layers plumbed here. A fascinating essay about this backstory is included with the novella. Fortunately for readers, one need not know all of this history to appreciate the story, which is a shining example of the beauty in collaboration that I hope we’ll see more of in the future. Built upon the mythology first created by Drexciya, the novella is set first below the waters and then above.

This is a story best experienced for the mood it creates, rather than any semblance of a traditional plot. As I read I did not retain much as far as specific story beats, but rather, upon finishing, I was left with a strange feeling, as if I had only just risen from the sea. This disorientation is part of the work’s beauty. The narrative feels as if you have been washed in layers of voices and cloudy images and when it ends, you feel as if you have been drenched. Any readers who require more solid story bearings may quickly find themselves feeling out of their depths, lost at sea.

For the rest of us, the water eddies of character and worldbuilding, such that there is, are well worth the journey.

Yetu holds the memory of her people in her song, the Remembrance. She is one of the wanjiru, the descendants of pregnant African slave mothers who were thrown overboard from slave ships during the Middle Passage. Rather than drown, they lived. As did their merfolk offspring who built an underwater civilization that makes one think of Atlantis—Delany’s and the Greeks’.

But this remembering of the intergenerational traumas from so many years ago, the origins of their people, is a burden Yetu is finding increasingly too difficult to bear. “In the dark of the deep,” Yetu tracks her life and the passage of time through the ocean’s currents, animal movement, and her people’s mating seasons.

None of this mattered, however, if Yetu wasn’t present enough to pay attention to them. The rememberings carried her mind away from the ocean to the past. These days, she was more there than here. This wasn’t a new thought, but she’d never felt it this strongly before. Yetu was becoming an ancestor herself. Like them, she was dead, or very near it.

Convinced that “the Remembrance took more than it gave,” Yetu flees the psychic and physical pain of her burden, one she shoulders alone for her people. Desperate, she seeks the solace of the unknown, the world above. What follows is at its heart a love story. Yetu falls in love with a two-leg human woman, a complicated relationship that forces her to form new answers to questions she never knew she had. Evocative and sensual, The Deep dramatizes the importance of knowing your history, but also the value in overcoming fear, bravely bridging the wide gaps in our understanding of each other, and the power one discovers when you create a new future for yourself.

*   *   *

Sinners and Saints and
the Souls in Between

Louis Armstrong performed a song on his trusty trumpet that became an anthem for the Crescent City, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” This is a song that strangely played through my head as I settled down to read Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble the Saints (Tor.com, hardcover, $26.99, 352 pages, ISBN 978-1-250-17534-2). The sentiment and the rhythms are right, but the lyrics don’t fit the bustling, skyscraper tall longing and desire that sometimes grips those who manage to leave the powerful arms and charms of New York City. Although I love my home in Memphis, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t “seize up” sometimes, wistfully remembering some scrap of land or even the chaotic sounds of a city that was my home for twenty years. After all, cities have a way of becoming a part of you, and New York is just as much a part of my history as anywhere else.

Perhaps that’s why during this international pandemic, when my hometown and my adopted home, New York City, faced an unexpected natural disaster in decidedly different ways, I latched onto every work I could that was a love song to the Empire State and the city that is the gleaming red apple of so many dreams. I reached back to Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York, visited the simulacrum mystery of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, cheered and chuckled at N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, and tried to lose myself and my worries in the alternate history of Trouble the Saints.

Who can resist a mirror New York noir set in the 1940s backdrop of Harlem and the underground Manhattan speakeasies? The story seems to work three narrative strands. And you need to watch for that because if you aren’t reading closely, you might not know, and then you’re confused, turning back to see what happened. So there are three narrators with their own internal conflicts, but the main one is Phyllis LeBlanc, a slick world-weary assassin who is ready to lay down her metaphorical sword and shield, or more specifically, her magical “hands.” Phyllis, also known as “Pea,” is a killer, protected by the mob’s biggest boss; however, protection doesn’t come for free. She’s caught up in number running (underground gambling) and the underbelly of some gangster intrigue, with ex-lovers and the obligatory new flame. There is also some pretty fascinating magic attached to her skill at knife throwing. She refers to all of this as juju. It’s kind of tough to explain. There is card reading and the “hands”—unique powers mostly passed down in Black families only. These abilities come in dreams that can give you advantages, like the right numbers to play so you hit and cash out, but there’s a cost to it. There always is.

Dev, her old friend and lover, is the next main character whose voice moves the story along from a different perspective. Dev is the Gemini, Janus, Marassa one, two-faced, living twin lives, neither fulfilling what they need. Besides Pea, the final narrator, Tamara, was my favorite. She’s the charismatic, irresistible one with oracle gifts that lead her to make some tough decisions. These three conflicted souls, far from saints, move in and out of alliances and intimacies as needed, finding solace and comfort when and where they can. There’s a lot of intrigue and action in the story, double-crosses, gore and violence—someone out for revenge is chopping off people’s “hands” literally—club scenes, and all that jazz. Johnson nails this world. I felt like I could smell the smoke in the air, see the sticky liquor spills on the Pelican Club’s floors and the stage. Her writing is marvelous, making the dialogue, the cadence, and the city on the cusp of a world war feel gritty and real.

I like the dark and dangerous night­scape Johnson unveils for us because it is peopled with good characters who aren’t necessarily good people. They are full of grayness, and you get the sense that they are all doing what they’re doing for Reasons and those reasons don’t always add up on the side of goodness. Johnson’s alternate New York is like the real New York, filled with all kinds of people from different backgrounds, including not just Black and white, but a biracial South Asian main character. It’s thrilling to see how Johnson lays this out on the page, but if you are looking for a speedy read, this is not it. You will need to take some time to understand how the “hands,” the card reading and the other magic, works in the first part, but once you figure out that each person’s gift manifests uniquely in their hands (the ability to read fortunes from the deck, to perceive danger from a mere touch, to hit the bullseye target/poor ill-fated mark with a knife from an incredible distance), then you see how the whole story connects. Johnson has given us flawed characters, who somehow all think they’re the good guys. Trouble the Saints is one of those rare books where redemption isn’t guaranteed and a true hero is hard to come by.

*   *   *

Reimagining the Future & the Past

I was excited to read Alaya Dawn Johnson’s brand new short story collection, Reconstruction: Stories (Small Beer Press, paperback, $17, 208 pages, ISBN 9781618731777) because it begins with her 2014 Nebula Award-winning F&SF novelette, “Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i.” This melancholy story is set in the future at a vampire-run human concentration camp, after vampires have taken over the world. Thirty-four year old Key is a human overseer who was unsuccessful two-out-of-three times preventing fellow humans from “self-wasting.” Their grisly deaths by their own hands are treated with sad resignation. The vampires in charge, like Key’s supervisor, Mr. Charles, can read minds, but only if they drink your blood. Key fears the unexpected meeting she is called to, but also knows Mr. Charles won’t discover any subversive thoughts about her dead cell mate, Jeb. She tells us it is because “he can’t drink thoughts she has spent most of her life refusing to have.”

This portrait of Key as a compliant and complicitous accomplice in her own enslavement makes this story even more terrifying and creepy. In this future, Hawai’i is still a resort destination, a status symbol for vampires who normally hate to cross water. When Key learns that Tetsuo, her former vampire owner, wants his “pet” back, she must take a boat to Oahu. Grade Gold is the most expensive, luxurious resort—though its guests only come out at night.

There are still remnants of a resistance. The Japanese have held on the longest, but we learn the source of Key’s deepest shame. Her father was killed in the first Big Island offensive. Key is grateful he died before ever learning about the hard choices she made to survive. Tetsuo the vampire offers Key a carrot of hope. Her mother is alive and working as a human caretaker somewhere on the island. But the hope he thinks he offers is more shame than she is willing to bear. Key would rather her mother die than see Key serving the enemy.

The novelette raises questions about slavery and freedom, about what choices are actually choices when free will and agency are overshadowed by torture or certain death. It also challenges readers by presenting a character who makes choices she is unwilling to face, ones that might reveal that she is perhaps the most monstrous of them all. In so many stories we are told that love conquers all, but what if that love becomes a weapon, a tool for the conquerors?

I can’t speak to what Alaya Dawn Johnson was thinking of when she wrote this tale and published it six years ago. I suspect the origins of this tale are as interesting as the story itself. That it opens a collection whose stories explore the various ways people on the margins navigate a difficult way forward is significant.

Reconstruction means to rebuild, recreate, or reimagine something that has been destroyed. In “Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” the world as we know it no longer exists, but the hierarchal power dynamics remain. Instead of a battle over land, water, and other natural resources, the battle is over human life itself. Blood is the food, the substance that nurtures the powers that be.

After the Civil War, from 1865 to 1877, Black freedmen faced similar questions about how they might navigate a world in which their very bodies had been used as tools. Little belonged to them before the war, not even their own children. After Emancipation, a checkered experience that only applied to the Confederate states, Black families had roughly a dozen years of theoretical access to full American citizenship. The ambitious but brief Reconstruction Era was a tiny blip in what previously had been nearly two centuries of slavery and what would become over 150 years of segregation, plunder, and humiliation.

Before Blacks were abandoned by their Northern allies to the sadism of the South, Reconstruction included a series of laws designed to help the newly freed get on the path to the American dream. It’s an interesting time, because while so many were in chains during the Peculiar Institution, others were living as free. Some were elected to local and state office, seeing the nation’s first Black governors in places that later would not see that sight again for another century. Black families were full of hope and promise, but those in the South soon found that the dream would not include them for very long.

I was thinking of Black Codes and Jim Crowism as I read some of the stories in Reconstruction, of how they stripped citizens of their newly gained freedom, relegating them to a caste system where they would be financially exploited and literally terrorized without equal protection under the law. In “Reconstruction,” the title story and one of two original works in the collection, Johnson weaves a heartbreaking story set in 1863 around Sally, a Black woman and rootworker who camped with her boys of the 1st South Carolina and 54th Massachusetts regiments. We enter the story in the voice and eyes of a woman caring for others’ sons in the dim light of possible true freedom. What I loved about this story is that Johnson gives this would-be mother and the men she loves full humanity. We hear their love and laughter, admire their resourcefulness, and experience them as real people, not simply as specters of an unsung history.

There is a peculiar kind of sadness,” declared Beau Whittaker one morning just before dawn, when we were still wrapped in one another in the tent the boys had given me for myself at the edge of camp, “in the starting of the spring.”

I wrinkled my nose. “The return of the birds? The blooming of new flowers? Spring greens for the pot? What’s sad about that, Sergeant Major?”

He smiled and blew out a soft breath, foggy in the morning air. I saw him as through a shroud. “I believe,” he said, “they call it melancholy.”

There is a quiet sadness that lingers in every line of the story, an awareness of the fragility of freedom and of life. Sally knows, when her boys are called to go up the Edisto River to Fort Wagner, that “some would return, and some wouldn’t. We would all go back to the earth in our time.”

Raped since she was twelve, having seen her own mother sold away, Sally tells us that she knew “as well as any former slave the danger of cleaving to any but God (and take care even with Him).” Yet at nineteen she is learning about tenderness and to experience it with a lover of her own choosing. This happiness is brief, as the ending of the 54th is well known in history. Few would survive, even their Colonel Shaw, and Sally has grown weary of death.

She gathers roots, like her great-grandmother, a powerful conjurewoman who was said to fly, only returning from the land of the ancestors for her babies and her babies’ babies. Sally shares many of her secrets, telling us

There are herbs for the dying—that’s rootworking—and herbs for the dead—that’s conjuring. A bit of flame, a bit of smoke, and a few thumbs of moonshine whisky to whet the haunted earth.

Haunting and breathtakingly beautiful is how I would describe this moving meditation on the strength of the human spirit. In this story of Stono River, of drowned Africans and those who could fly, of John the Conqueror and spells whispered in Spanish Moss, Johnson leaves us “willow-twisted and cracked,” knowing the “nearer we are to freedom, the farther from peace.” When we first met Sally she was a newly freed young woman, but by the story’s end she is a widow and a former schoolteacher who has survived much war, bloodshed, and loss. She has lived long enough for the beautiful children she taught to be embarrassed by her disillusion, to believe that the elders like Mrs. Sally Whitaker did not do enough. But she is left with something else, her memories, her incantations, and the mirror of her youthful rage. The latter which we so rarely give voice to in the stories of this complex past.

*   *   *

A Mythic Kind of Freedom

Ben Okri is no stranger to speculative fiction. As one of the living giants of African literature, his Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road, the first in a trilogy, was a mythic, apocalyptic story. It followed the journey of Azaro, an abiku or spirit child living in an unnamed Nigerian city. The work melded Yoruba myth with absurd, urban socio-political chaos with occasionally nightmarish visitations from Azaro’s malevolent spirit friends who dwelled in the other realm. A stoic who did not fear death, Azaro tells readers that he fears none. Darkly humorous (read it to find Azaro’s mom’s blessing for her new car), The Famished Road is my favorite book by the author, with its myth-making, myth-destroying, boundary-blurring writing.

Okri’s new book, The Freedom Artist (Akashic Books, hardcover, $30.95, 336 pages, ISBN 978-1617757914) is beautifully written, but some readers may struggle with identifying the novel’s raison d’être. An allegorical novel with gorgeous prose, it harkens to an Orwellian future where everyone is born in a prison. Books are ancient history, mediocrity is celebrated. The society goes on to be so successful that they begin to believe they are actually free. When a young woman, Amalantis, asks a forbidden question, “Who is the prisoner?” she disappears, setting her lover, Karnak, off on a journey to uncover the real truth behind Hierarchy, the government. Naturally there is an underground resistance, named “underground,” that we’re told has nothing to do with political resistance, organized crime, sorcery or witchcraft, or Egyptian mythology, even though that appears to be completely untrue. Karnak must decide which entity abducted his love. We meet two other dissidents, Mirababa and Rusiana, also struggling to see beyond the shadows in Plato’s cave. The fable within a fable structure with its numerous side-myths and detours may wear thin with readers who are most comfortable with a strictly linear storytelling style. But for those who manage to complete the novel and escape the cave, they may find themselves blinded by the light.

*   *   *

A Gathering of Fantastic Voices

Edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, Dominion (Aurelia Leo, paperback, $19.99, 250 pages, ISBN 978-1-946024-88-6), the first anthology of poetry and fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, is marvelously engaging! With a brief but excellent intro by Tananarive Due exploring her own love for the genre, the anthology heralds many new African speculative fiction writers and those from the Diaspora that should be on our radars for years to come.

There are thirteen stories, and I challenge anyone to not find at least one story you really love. I enjoyed many of them, as they run the gamut of storytelling featuring golden age SFnal tales, hard science fiction, fantasy, horror, and works that blur the lines. From the wonderfully creepy old god in Nicole Givens Kurtz’s “Trickin’,” whose identity is a great discovery, to the traveling magicians in Eugen Bacon’s beautifully written “A Magi Magi Chronicle” and the bewildered, code-writing pet robot dog of Dilman Dila’s “Red_Bati” to the undeniably weirdly entertaining, splendidly odd “Convergence in Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowa rooted in Yoruba mythology, I was hooked. Hooked. But three stories battled it out in my imagination, lingering with me long after I’d read them. Two were horror tales and one was a powerfully evocative science fiction fable.

After the digging, his father always said, you have to wash death off you.

But some deeds can’t be washed away so easily. “Sleep Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Okungbowa Davies seems written chiefly to unsettle and disturb. From its first lines it hits you with that creeping sense of dread horror fans love most. Max Anickwu is a black market trader trafficking goods best for the reader to discover. And his contact, Chidi, blacklisted by other traders because he is that incompetent, has done everything wrong—including telling the client Max’s full government name. There’s a wry humor to this story, the better to disarm you as the deal goes down. Later, Max awakes in the dead of the night to face a terror emerging from an all too real nightmare. This cautionary tale is cinematic and would make a wickedly chilling, satirical short film.

All is still. Nothing breaks the grave-like silence of the vast forest.

Part nightmare, part womanist manifesto, “The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh transports readers from a haunted forest to 1950s West Africa and back again. It is a tale told in reverse, from end to beginning, detailing the downfall of poor Desee (Desdemona) as she desperately seeks a way to bear the son her husband, and indeed her community, expects and demands. An especially grim arranged marriage to Agu sealed Desee’s fate, and at times it is unclear what is scarier, the story’s supernatural elements or its marital misery. You know things don’t end well from the story’s opening, but it is the how of the journey that draws you into this well-crafted, terrifying tale. Atmospheric and full of mystery, the story offers a searing critique of stringent cultural traditions and how certain beliefs conspire to haunt the inner lives of young women and girls.

Ife-Iyoku is the forest of fears, and Morako, Imade, and their fellow villagers have good reason to fear. They must outsmart a giant, winged lizard-like beast whose forked tongue flickers over the tops of banana trees. But they are armed with a technology that allows them to synchronize their minds and their steps, if only for brief moments, shielding them, Predator-style, from detection. The vivid action and skillful worldbuilding begins from the first lines in Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald’s “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon.”

In the story we learn that the community is full of survivors of a nuclear war that has decimated Afrika, leaving them alone to adapt. Some animals as well as people have developed mutations and other traits to survive. But shared responsibility is critical in this society, where each person has a specific, often gendered role. Over the course of the story’s multiple sections, readers see how each role plays out in the larger world, and how Imade begins her own coming-of-age, ultimately refusing the limits others would place on her own agency.

Packed with strong storytelling, great writing, powerful social commentary, and rich, imaginative worlds, Dominion is an anthology that every fan of fantasy should include in their personal library.
 

Copyright © 2021 Sheree Renée Thomas

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