The Winged Histories

Sofia Samatar has some of the most beautiful writing I have read in years. The words in this story feel like music more than prose.  There is a rhythm to them, description of people and places resounding like deep notes.  I won’t lie to you, THE WINGED HISTORIES isn’t the kind of book you dive into expecting high action ad massive battles.  No, it’s a far more intimate secondary world that has scatterings of fantasy elements, but the main focus is on the rich cultural and historical connections across different lands joined as one.  Then there are the women of this story and it is around their wonderful depictions that this novel turns.

Tav refuses to be bound to her cultural norms of gender or love. She goes off to war, returns a wounded veteran, falls in love with a woman unapologetically and then goes off to fight another revolution. She’s just a character full of fire and determination. Even her language when speaking is crackling with that kind of intensity.  It’s what makes the tragedy at the heart of this story so difficult to handle because someone like Tav should win. Someone like Tav should come out ahead and Samatar absolutely rips your heart out by not giving that to you.

Siski and her doomed love is the stuff of Shakespeare. It is so sad to watch it fall apart and yet Samatar manages to make it look beautiful the entire time.  There was an elegance to the way the tragedy was presented. Society and fate ultimately trapped her to an end that it seemed she didn’t really want to find a way to escape from anyway. Just wait till you see how her story ends.  It’s fitting and you still want to cry regardless.

You have to appreciate prose to read this book.  You need to be in the mood for long, beautiful sentences. Be ready to relish the intricate details of food customs and dinner settings. You’ll want to bury your face in its fabrics.  Each and every romance will leave its imprint on you long after you read it. Some books are like pizza, you love every bite but it’s really not a delicacy. THE WINGED HISTORIES is a four hundred dollar, three course meal with some wine thrown in. If you’re like me, you only do those every blue moon and you have to savor every moment of it.

African Monsters Review Part 3

Here is the end of our look at AFRICAN MONSTERS.  In short, this anthology is just such a powerful representation of what you can do with a mindful, purposeful approach to diversity and trying to make sure everyone’s story is put out there.  The last batch of stories continues in the vein of using horror as the vehicle to make wider statements about societal ills.

“Bush Baby” by Chikodili Emelumadu provided some powerful, haunting images.  It struck me as a story of the unfortunate truth that family can sometimes pull you into their bad decisions like gravity.  The main character had done everything right and didn’t really deserve to have to confront what she did.  But the indisputable bond between siblings drove her to it and I like how there isn’t really an end to the confrontation.  It was a lesson in some things having to simply be endured and not necessarily coming to a neat ending.

“After the Rain” by Joe Vaz is one of those stories that really worked the horror angle.  It taught me a bit about South Africa and some of its politics along the way, but I have to say I felt the creeping horror the entire time.  Vaz knew what to focus on to build the horror (the baying, the carcasses, the darkness) and each of those elements carried out the story to its proper crescendo.  The ending brought all the simmering politics of the story to a head.  It was a well-constructed story that hit all the notes along the way.

“Taraab and Terror in Zanzibar” by Dave-Brendon de Burgh is political in more of a Jason Bourne sort of way.  It has all the feeling of an old school pulp story and the hero of it put me in the mind of Doc Savage.  It’s almost pulp horror in how it’s handled.  I wish we could have seen the actual final fight, but I can understand why we didn’t.  While it might have been a spectacle, it wouldn’t have ultimately added anything of substance to the story.

“A Whisper in the Reeds” by Nerine Dorman offered up the first LGBT protagonist in the anthology and I was glad for it as I was afraid that bit of representation might be missed out on.  It was refreshing to see a gay couple that wasn’t mired by tragedy and wasn’t insanely happy either.  They were just a normal couple.  I found that thread of the story the most interesting.  While the creatures in the lake were the way the story was brought together, I found the more grounded events to be profoundly more intriguing.

Some of those themes of sexuality get carried over into “Acid Test” by Vianne Venter.  There’s a strong component of environmentalism in the mix of this story and it offered up something of a warning in that regard.  But it wasn’t necessarily dystopic in its handling.  It felt more capitalistic in approach and the main characters seem to feed right into that which sort of makes the environmental message a bit fatalist, which sadly is probably the most realistic approach.

“Thandiwe’s Tokoloshe” by Nick Wood is a twisted children’s story that lovingly throws the middle finger up at Narnia.  I loved it and the sassiness of the young child is such a refreshingly real take.  Not all children come wrapped in manners and innocence.  Frankly, they shouldn’t for a number of reasons and I think this story makes a strong case for it.

AFRICAN MONSTERS delivered on its promises and then some.  We got stories from a unique perspective that I can only hope continues to grow in the publishing industry.

African Monsters Review Part 2

So we move into our second look at the anthology AFRICAN MONSTERS.  One of the things that I really love about this collection is that it doesn’t try to play the continent like this monolithic entity.  It acknowledges and embraces the many, many cultures and subcultures that exist there.  That is such a needed thing for those of us who suffer from a Western gaze which prompts us to make so many unfounded assumptions.  So while this anthology certainly entertained, it also educated.

Picking up where we left off, we start with “The Death of One” by Su Opperman.  Having a short graphic piece in the middle of this prose collections was a welcome change of pace.  And I think it’s a perfect complement to many of the stories that came before and after it.  There’s a grittiness to the work that is just primal.  There’s this raw intensity that travels effortlessly from one panel to the next.  You don’t need a lot of exposition because the essence of this conflict is depicted flawlessly.

“Chikwambo” by T.L. Huchu was a story that intertwined so much into such a short time.  You see the arrogance of patriarchy, the cruelty of loss and it all gets encapsulated with this terribly sad creature.  The Chikwambo is certainly scary, but there’s such a tragic aspect to it.  It’s heartbreaking to think of the origins and how much pain must exist behind such a legend.  The Tsikamutanda reminded me a bit of the teacher character from “Fullmetal Alchemist” in how he possessed great wisdom, but still made a fatal mistake in the end.  I think this is easily one of my favorite stories in the collection.

“Monwar” by Dilman Dila also manages to weave some different themes together in an interesting way.  The main character is a woman cop in a society that doesn’t make it easy for women to exist in such a profession.  So she takes no crap from anyone and does her job very well throughout the course of the story.  But thankfully, Dila avoids the mundane “unstoppable badass woman who feels nothing” cliché and infuses the character with a large yearning to fill a part of her life that has left her.  At first, I was prepared to not like that particular angle of the story but Dila delivers it with nuance and some comedy.  The main character’s yearning is mirrored in terrible fashion by the Monwar that is feasting throughout the city.  Overall, this story is just an excellent use of foil and symbolism.

The feminist work is carried onward in “That Woman” by S. Lotz.  When I talked earlier about this anthology educating, this is one of the stories I thought of.  It is a story that lays out the harmful repercussions of a witchcraft accusation and how damaging that can be to a woman.  The sinister details of these accusations and the economic destruction it causes reminds me in some ways of the Salem Witch Trails, but this phenomena runs far deeper and the scar of it seems longer lasting.  I didn’t walk away from this story feeling sorry for any of its losers and that’s how it should be.  None were deserving of sympathy and I think this story manages to relish in its vengeance in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous.

“Sacrament of Tears” by Toby Bennett caught my attention immediately because of the tone.  The author manages to capture the language and flow of the time period they’re depicting so well that I almost wanted to check back to the first page to make sure Lord Byron’s name wasn’t there.  This is a story that you can tell work was put into to get every word just right and it elevated my appreciation the piece to another level.  There wasn’t a single moment in the story where I felt like it broke “character”.  There is a critique of colonialism hidden somewhere in the mix here, but it hides itself as well as the Mother in this story hides her pain.  A wonderful piece and one that will stick in my mind for quite some time.

Tomorrow will cover the remainder of the anthology and offer us some stories dealing with environmentalism, revolutions and politics all wrapped up with different seasonings of horror.

African Monsters Review Part 1

Monsters and legends.  Every culture has them and in American pop culture, some of these monsters and ideas have been worn to nothing.  The European caricatures of vampires and werewolves have been playing out for decades here.  So this book was refreshing for that reason and because it allowed me as an African-American to get another interesting glimpse into the continent from which my ancestry hails.  To be short, this anthology captured my imagination and forced me to turn on the lights at points of my reading it.  I’ll run through the stories, giving some insight into the parts of them that stuck out for me.  Given the amount of tales woven and my need to say something about each one, this review will be broken into three easily digestible parts.

The first story in the collection was crafted by the incomparable Nnedi Okorafor titled “On the Road”.  This was a perfect story to begin the collection with as it smashed all of my expectations because my early assumptions told me this was to be a zombie story. Wrong is probably not even appropriate to sum up my ill conclusion.  The idea of the mmuo was just so damn intriguing and terrifying in scope.  Its imagery harkened back to some of the mystical guardians seen in Who Fears Death.  In such a small space, Okorafor managed to give us lessons on family, fate and responsibility.  The ending felt like something right out of a superhero origin story.  You can always expect a coolly crafted heroine under Okorafor’s pen.

Next in the collection is a story from Joan de la Haye called “Impundulu”.  The creature that the title is named for strikes me a bit like a Garuda.  I couldn’t help but to invoke the imagery of Perdido Street Station as I read this story.  Rape and its awful consequences is a terrible, global disease and I think this story tries to manage some of that in its own way.   The Impundulu seems to represent the righteous, if not dark, rage a person feels after suffering that kind of violation.  As the story plays out, you see that rage causes indiscriminate lashing out.  I think more could have been done to build up the character of the daughter, but when viewed through the lens of her being a symbol then I see why she wasn’t.

“One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight” by Tade Thompson was one of the longer pieces in the anthology.   Despite every descriptive writing and a sympathetic main character, I’m not sure if it needed to be that long of a story.  There was an immediacy to some of the scenes that I don’t think carried all the way through the story.   But what I found the most interesting was the relationship between the protagonist and the foreign priest.  It struck me as somewhat twisted how this priest had deluded himself into thinking the protagonist was something he could pin down.  By far, that dynamic caught my attention the most.

“Severed” by Jayne Bauling reminded me so much of an old school horror movie.  College kids on a trip and ignoring local lore is something I’ve seen played out in that genre quite a few times, but here it feels new and refreshing.  The monster at the center of this story is horrifying in its ability to take away your freewill through something you can never really get rid of.  It takes one of the most natural aspects of yourself and turns it into something wholly dangerous.  The story works itself in a way you might expect it to, but you’re still left with sufficient chills once it’s done.

Tomorrow we’ll be digging into some stories from Su Opperman, Dilman Dila and others..

..African Monsters

 

Shadowshaper: A Slick Diss on Gentrification

shadowshaper_coverLiterature is one of the best ways for marginalized people to fight back against oppression.  It’s an unfortunate truth of the publishing world that many marginalized voices are smothered.  So that literary weapon can seem out of reach and hard to use.  I’m glad to say that Daniel Jose Older grabbed that weapon with SHADOWSHAPER and took a couple of necessary jabs along the way.  But like much good literature, he doesn’t have to tell you that’s what he doing.  He just walks you into the room and you figure out the decorating for yourself.

This Young Adult (though I find that label limiting here) novel is about a young girl named Sierra and her embracing her family legacy.  That legacy is held up in stark contrast against the gentrification going on in her community of Brooklyn.  I have a very good friend from that area who has more than made me aware of that insidious invasion going on in an area full of rich history.  So I had an idea of that going into the novel, but Older makes it real. He breathes life and circumstance into it.   He’s able to contrast the richness and depth of the Dominican culture against the blandness of rising coffee shops and suburban living trying to disguise itself in an urban setting.

The indictment of gentrification and how it drains on communities is ever in the background as Sierra is dealing with fading murals and the significant danger that represents.  I can’t help but to think of these fading murals as a symbol of the encroaching nature of gentrification and how it erases the character of a neighborhood with hipster barber shops and nauseating cafes.  Sierra is struggling to figure out exactly what is causing these murals to fade and why they seem to be alive in the first place.

There is also another angle in which the acidic nature of gentrification and how it destroys the foundation of a neighborhood is explored.  You see how it erodes history and makes people ashamed of it.  Sierra is in a constant struggle with her family and the elders of her community to discover the origins of shadowshaping and just how that flows into her family history.  It’s symbolic in a way of how the original residents in gentrified neighborhoods, if they survive the price hikes, are forced to alter themselves to survive in their new surroundings.  They have to become something acceptable to the new white infrastructure.

Sierra’s character is a loud middle finger to such a system.  She is unapologetically her ethnicity, embracing every aspect of it without doubt or shame.  You can’t help but to love her because of it.  I look at Sierra and hope that my two nieces are so in tune with themselves like this young woman is.  That’s what makes her important in the YA field.  She’s a female character of color who isn’t going through existential angst about her gender or color.  It’s not some source of boogeyman drama.  No, it’s her identity and it serves the story without having to be the story.

I look at Sierra and hope she is the future of Young Adult characters for POC audiences.  We want to see ourselves represented but not have our identities dragged out for white audience torture porn.  We want to be the heroes, the warriors, the people flying starships and to paraphrase another remarkable YA series; we too want our girls to be on fire!  Loved this book from top to bottom and it has solidly made me a Daniel Jose Older groupie (and if I ever get to meet him I’m sure that’ll be amazingly awkward…)

Book Bars: The Seedbearing Prince (Part Two)

Chapter Three- Chapter Nine

So in these chapters we get a better idea of how Wia Wells and Shard as a world operates.  If anything, the planet reminds me a bit of The Shire from Lord of The Rings.  You have these simple farm folk suddenly beset by these larger than life forces and one special one amongst them must confront it.   DaVaun is definitely drawing inspiration from the classical model of The Hero’s Journey.  I think that is why the story resonates from the beginning because it has some of those familiar, bedrock elements to it.

Dayn definitely becomes a more sophisticated character over the stretch of these chapters.  He’s a non-conformist and it almost seems to be the nature of heroes that requires non-conformity.  Dayn isn’t above challenging his friends and loved ones when he sees something is wrong.  But I think authors can have a tendency to romanticize non-conformity and make it into this whimsical thing we should have all strive to be.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m down with bucking the system, but there are consequences for it.   DaVaun takes the time to show those consequences and emotionally they are brutal for the character of Dayn.

When he finally does leave his world, you can tell he’s been battered and bruised for his choices.  Now I’ll be honest here and say that I found myself a bit edgy to get off world.  I think the book may have lingered a bit too long on Shard if only because I think the prologue sets up a space adventure and that’s what you kind of expect early on.  So when we finally get to the Ring I’m in a good reading space because I feel like things are really going to get into gear.  Everything else before this just seems like a prelude.

So I’m ready to see how things progress for Dayn and what kind of worldbuilding we’re going to get from DaVaun.  So far he’s done a great job because Shard feels truly fleshed out so I imagine he’s going to get to spread his wings a bit here in these upcoming chapters.

Book Bars: The Seedbearing Prince (Part One)

Prologue – Chapter Two

This story starts right off in the action and after a couple of the things I’ve read this weekend, getting right into the action is a good thing.  It’s fast paced, you know you’re in a space opera setting and it sets the tone for what you expect the whole novel to be.  I think its good things slow down a bit right after though because the emotional connections haven’t been established yet and it might be hard to do so in that breakneck an opening.

Our eyes in this story is the character of Dayn.  So far, Dayn feels a lot like Luke Skywalker to me.  He’s obviously going to be our hero, he’s young and he’s looking to go do something that his parental figures don’t approve of.  Dayn wants to participate in something called course blading, which you kind of got an introduction to in the prologue.  It was smart of Sanders to throw that bit of action in at the beginning because you get a very good taste of exactly why his parents might not be so keen on letting Dayn do it.  Hell, I wouldn’t want my kid up there in space jumping from one insanely fast moving rock to another.

Sanders has found that delicate balance that many world building authors struggle with.  N.K. Jemisin talks about the levels of immersion a story will take and I think today’s audience is looking for something that hovers between mid and high immersion.  Meaning that Sanders knows when to explain something to us and when to just let the details of the backstory unfold.  He makes better use of his time setting up the conflict for us as opposed to explaining how the farming system works on this world.   A smart writer knows to when to give and when to let the reader fill in the blanks.

I’m committed to the story now and that’s in part due to the author’s ability to excite and then to pull you in with a universal conflict; the coming of age.  I look forward to seeing how this plays out and how else this story might be a spiritual friend to Star Wars.

Book Bars: The Fifth Season (Part Three)

Chapter Eight- The End

So I got a little hype with the book and had some free time on my hands so I carried my reading all the way through to the end.   I felt like as I was reading this story, I had certain suspicions about the timelines of the different narratives and they ended up being true.  I won’t spoil anything, but you will end up being satisfied once it call connects

For me, I think that is Jemisin’s greatest strength.  She knows how to pull all the different plot threads together and kick you in the teeth at the end.  You walk away from the book feeling satisfied with how everything comes together and she leaves you with quite an interesting prelude to the next book.  Though I’m starting to think she has a thing with moons, which is perfectly cool with me.   All us writers have those themes and imagery we gravitate to.

I wish we would have gotten a little more action in this novel.  There were parts that I felt things dragged and I waited for something to come along to really pick up the pace.  Part of me thinks that may be in part to Jemisin wanting to harp on the depression and the sickness of the world she took us through.  This place isn’t at all somewhere I’d ever want to go.   Constant earthquakes, an oppressed minority that has horrible things done to them and they’re filled with this looming self-hate.  Yea it’s just too much to take in at times in the amount of bad things happening here.  There really are no happy endings here.

It could just be the focus was taken away from the potential bits of action because the emotional weight of the story already put such a heavy loaded on the reader.  Even as I write this, some of that depression from the story lingers.  I’m playing music to kind of lift the dark cloud that story left around my essence.  Don’t get me wrong because these darker moments are necessary but this novel rubs it into your skin like dirt you can’t get rid of without a couple of showers.  So just be prepared for it.

Will I get the next book?  Yea and I’ll tell you why.  Given how bleak things are at the end of the book, I’m honestly not sure where Jemisin can go with the story now.  The world is pretty much gone for by the end of the book so I’m interested to see how she decides to up the ante.

Book Bars: The Fifth Season (Part Two)

Chapter Five- Seven

At this point I think we’re going to be sticking with just the viewpoints of the ladies.  Which, I have absolutely no problem with.  I mean how many freaking books are there were all the main characters are male?  So yea, not an issue at all with the reader getting all women.  And these are varied characters regardless of their gender.  In fact, I give Jemisin praise for how she chose which characters would serve as our POV here.  The variety of them is really going to allow her to explore her world.  I’m curious to see if their various threads even come together in one place or not.

There’s a part in Chapter Six that is going to piss just about anyone off and it shows the depths of discrimination the orogenes face.  Damaya, the little girl who I hoped was being saved from a terrible life, is probably in a much worse situation now.  She’s in the care of someone who I’m going to equate to a police officer here and he’s breaks the damn girl’s hand to prove a point about who’s in control.  It made me immediately think of all the terrible things done to black children during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow.  I think Jemisin wanted me to feel that horror and not casually walk by that scene.  I swear it stuck with me for days after reading it.

So on the flipside, we have the broken mother Essun finding herself in the company of a lost child that doesn’t seem to fit any known physical norms and can sense orogenes like a tracker.  The kid is definitely a mystery and a perfectly fitting one for the situation of Essun.  And damn it if Jemisin isn’t keeping this second person POV going strong.  I am so jealous of the talent she’s exhibiting here.

Book Bars: The Fifth Season (Part One)

Prologue – Chapter Four

***Spoilers could be in the mix here, so stop reading now if you don’t want any***

So I’ll be honest.  The opening to this story didn’t immediately grab my attention in the way that The Killing Moon did.  I think The Killing Moon just started off with something so foreign and powerful that it hooked me right away.  The opening here felt jumbled and kind of all over the place.   Part of me thinks this was thematically done to represent the chaos that this world is in, but it just didn’t grab me right away.

Now Chapter One did catch me for a couple of reasons.  The first being that it was done in second person.  Those narratives always catch my attention because I want to see if people can actually pull it off.  Jemisin does.  Man she’s uses it in perfect fashion here to take us through the grief of a devastated Mother who has to deal with a murdered toddler.  It was intense and it kept my attention.

Jemisin’s world building shines through again in how quickly and effortlessly she establishes the world she’s taking you into.   The rules it operates under, the prejudices littered throughout it and the peoples populating it.  There are some so-called “pro-black” folks who give Jemisin flack for the multicultural nature of her stories, but yea I say a big F them to that.   There are obviously buttloads of African American experience and perspective in her writing.

The plight of the orogenes has so many ties to discrimination, injustice and slavery.  What I like too is that our three main characters so far (Essun, Damaya and Syenite) are all women operating in this system.  What’s even better is that the story starts to pick up and be so good that you barely even recognize that fact.  It’s feminism infused with good craft.  What’s not to love about that?