Category: Fiction

The Underground Railroad

Cover image for The Underground Railroad by Colson Whiteheadby Colson Whitehead

ISBN 978-0-385-54236-4

“Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.”      

Cora is a third-generation slave born on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been a stray since the age of ten, when her mother became the only slave to ever escape the plantation, evading an infamous bounty hunter in the process. Since then, Cora has lived in Hob, the cabin for outcast slaves rejected even by their own people. So when Caesar approaches her about running North, Cora assumes it is a joke, or worse, a trap. The punishment for even discussing escape could be death. But Caesar has a connection to the Underground Railroad, and when the balance of power on the Randall plantation shifts, running starts to seem like an option worthy of consideration. Via the lines of the Underground Railroad, Cora will live many lives after she escapes Randall, but the shadow of slavery will pursue her wherever she goes.

In Colson Whitehead’s imagining, the railroad that spirits Cora and Caesar to freedom is real and literal, rather than metaphorical. However, this is as far as Whitehead takes it; the railroad is a tool that enables him to transport Cora easily from place to place, through the different incarnations of the Black experience of America. He does not spend his time developing the premise of the railroad, or linger on the journey, though there is a nod to the fact that building and ventilating such a network would be a mighty feat of engineering. Rather, the railroad is a curious detail that adds atmosphere to the story, and facilitates Cora’s development as a character in the various chapters of her life. Whitehead delivers his fantastic additions in a matter-of-fact tone that causes them to blend seamlessly into the more factual aspects of the narrative, as he presents the horrors of slavery with equal directness.

The Underground Railroad is divided into episodes punctuated by the steps of Cora’s journey towards the promised freedom of the North. It is not a story delineated by strict notions of time; Whitehead freely borrows episodes and details from later periods to create amalgams. The trip from Georgia to South Carolina is not just a crossing of a state line, but in many ways takes Cora and Caesar into the concerns of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century free Blacks, confronted with the eugenics movement and  medical experimentation on non-consenting parties. Across the border again, into North Carolina, Whitehead conjures a white supremacist separatist state where Blacks can be executed on sight. Here we find echoes of the Holocaust, and Anne Frank’s sojourn in her Amsterdam attic, as well as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Although Whitehead plays fast and loose with the facts, he does so in a way that condensed the impact of the real events that inspired his fictions and elaborations. After South Carolina, there is a sense of dread that hangs over the book. Freedom feels elusive, perhaps even delusional, with each new fresh start less hopeful than the last. While starting over from each new location and perspective was occasionally tiresome, the technique was effective in building that sense of dread, and the niggling question about whether Cora can ever truly be free in a country built on the back of slave labour. When we leave Cora on the road, her next destination and chapter unwritten ahead of her, I wanted to believe she might still find true freedom, but could no longer quite bring myself to believe it could be true. In this way, The Underground Railroad has haunted me long past the final page.

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Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)

Cover image for Jack of Hearts by L. C. Rosenby L.C. Rosen

ISBN 978-0-316-48053-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“My sex life has always been out there, talked about, but now I’m talking about it, too. I don’t know if it’s just going to make the rumors and stories worse. I want to douse the fire, not throw gasoline on it.”

Jack Rothman is an out and proud gay white boy in liberal New York City, attending an elite private school. He knows he has it easy compared to gay kids in rural areas, or even compared to his best friend Ben, who is black and fat, in addition to being gay. But his ostensibly liberal school doesn’t quite know how to handle Jack, a boy who wears make up and has a reputation for sleeping around. So when Jack decides to lean into his reputation, and starts writing a sex and relationship advice column for his friend Jenna’s website, it is no surprise when the administration is displeased. But the sex advice column also prompts a turn for the disturbing, when a secret admirer begins leaving creepy notes in Jack’s locker. Soon stalking turns to blackmail, as the letter writer tries to force Jack back into the closet and curb his sexual behaviour. With no help from the school administration, it is up to Jack and his friends to figure out who is blackmailing him before his stalker gets what they want.

Jack is refreshing character in that his coming out is long behind him. He has friends both gay and straight, and a supportive if somewhat harried single mother. But the world he lives in has certain ideas about how gay people should behave, as exemplified in the character of Jeremy, President of the school GSA, and Jack’s first boyfriend, who is constantly striving after the straight ideal of masculinity in everything except who he dates. Jack’s refusal to be bound by these strictures results in him becoming the object of gossip in his school, where everyone feels free to talk about his sexual exploits, and even make up stories about him. In this respect, Rosen’s fun YA mystery full of parties and teen romance is also a serious conversation about the ways straight people, including young women, objectify gay men for their own pleasure or entertainment.

As a fan of the advice column format, I loved the way Rosen incorporated the Jack of Hearts letters into the story, posing them as advice, commentary, and even plot development in various scenarios, while also reinforcing the book’s emphatically sex-positive tone. Jack, of course, gives remarkably good, carefully crafted advice for a seventeen-year old, coming across as mature and worldly. But these character traits also prove complicated burdens as he tries to solve the problem of his stalker without involving the police, or his mom. As the harassment intensifies, he even begins to pull away from his friends, believing that he can solve everything himself, without worrying anyone else, and it is this belief that takes the book to its darkest place. Although I figured out who Jack’s stalker was early in the book, the intensifying situation still managed to hold me on edge until the very end.

If there was one place Jack of Hearts fell down for me, it was in the relatively abrupt wrap-up, after the stalker is revealed. I couldn’t help but feel that the implications of what Jack and his friends went through were overlooked for a simplistic conclusion. The result is a weirdly anti-climactic let down from an intense situation. After the deliberate intention and care with which the author addressed complex issues like consent and homophobia, this breezy conclusion to a legitimately traumatic experience felt out of place. With a more developed conclusion, this book would have been a real stand-out.

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Muse of Nightmares (Strange the Dreamer #2)

Cover image for Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor by Laini Taylor

ISBN 978-0-316-34171-4

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“There comes a certain point with a hope or a dream, when you either give it up or give up everything else. And if you choose the dream, if you keep on going, then you can never quit, because it’s all you are.”

Following the discovery of Lazlo’s strange origin, and Sarai’s fall from the citadel, the fate of Weep rests in the hands of the vengeful Minya. True, Lazlo can command the citadel, but only Minya’s power holds Sarai’s soul in this world. Given form and substance by her sister’s ability, it is almost as if Sarai never died. But Minya wants to take her ghost army into the city of Weep to exact the vengeance she has dreamed of for so long, and she vows that she will let Sarai’s soul evanesce if Lazlo does not comply, leaving him with a terrible choice between saving Sarai, and saving the people of Weep who have welcomed him as if he was one of their own. So many doors to the future, even to other worlds, have opened with Lazlo’s return, but with Minya still trapped in the past, there can be no moving forward without a reckoning.

Between the chapters about our old friends from Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor interweaves a new perspective, following sisters Nova and Kora. Living in an icy wasteland where women do most of the hard labour, and it is only a matter of time before their father sells them off in marriage, they dream of the only way out they know. Perhaps, like their mother before them, they will be chosen by the Servants of the Empire. Because everyone has a talent, and the Servants can find it. And if their talents are good enough, and powerful enough, maybe they too will be taken away, never to return. But serving the Empire comes with its own price.

Muse of Nightmares is a seamless continuation from the events of Strange the Dreamer. The first book ended in a tight corner, with Lazlo trapped between Minya’s will for vengeance, and his desire to save Sarai. Getting out of this bind is a bit of a tightrope act, and one that is not without its slips. The perspectives of Kora and Nova seem to have little immediate connection to the situation in Weep, though it is relatively easy to make the connection to the multiple worlds theory revealed by the origins of the Mesarthim given in Strange the Dreamer. While the first volume left these possibilities as a tantalizing backstory, they become more explicit in Muse of Nightmares, peering behind the curtain of the worlds. This was satisfying in some ways, but felt a bit like seeing how the magic trick is performed in others.

To break the deadlock between the original characters, Taylor relies on the strategy of introducing a new, more formidable villain who poses a common problem for the residents of the citadel. Given the godlike powers already possessed by Sarai and her sisters, this is naturally a bit over the top, an almost literal deus ex machina, if you will. Taylor ratchets up the tension in a conflict where the stakes were already impossibly high, and in doing so flattens some of the emotional impact of her tale. Muse of Nightmares provides revelations and closure, but doesn’t quite manage to recapture the magic of Strange the Dreamer.

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Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylorby Laini Taylor

ISBN 978-0-316-34168-4

His books were not his dream. Moreover, he had tucked his dream into their pages like a bookmark, and been content to leave it there for too long. The fact was: Nothing he might ever do or read or find inside the Great Library of Zosma was going to bring him one step closer to Weep. Only a journey would do that.”

From his childhood as an orphan in a monastery, to his young adulthood as a junior library apprentice, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the lost city of Weep. For thousands of years, magical goods crossed the Elmuthaleth desert to be traded, but no faranji was ever allowed to see the city from whence they came, on pain of death. But two hundred years ago, all trade suddenly ceased without explanation. Once, Weep had another name, but fifteen years ago it was snatched from the minds of the few who remembered the city at all, including Lazlo, whose obsession was only deepened by the loss. Now a hero from Weep, known as the Godslayer, has emerged from the Elmuthaleth, seeking the best scientists to join a delegation that will help the city solve the last remnant of the problem that halted trade for two hundred years. But what use could such a delegation have for a mere junior librarian who has studied Weep all his life, and yet undoubtedly knows less about it than anyone who was raised there?

In beautiful prose that will be familiar to fans of her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor brings to life a vivid new fantasy world that didn’t so much capture my imagination as take it hostage, until I stayed up far too late to reach the last page, and find out what would become of Lazlo, Sarai, and the people of Weep. Taylor opens with Lazlo, the orphan who will take us on our journey into the unknown. After spending his childhood in a monastery, Lazlo escapes to the Great Library of Zosma, and a career as a librarian. In his world, librarians are the mere servants of the aristocratic scholars, expected to keep knowledge, but never to discover it. But Lazlo is forever tripping over that line, particularly in his somewhat antagonistic relationship with Thyon Nero, golden son of Zosma, and the only alchemist who has ever produced gold. The other perspective belongs to Sarai, a girl who lives a strange secluded life with four other children, but dreams of the city of Weep every night.

To say too much more is to spoil Taylor’s careful parsing out of information, which kept me on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how it all fit together. Some have described this as a slow start to Strange the Dreamer, but I was intent on soaking up her beautiful world-building and getting to know the various characters. The Godslayer refuses to tell the delegation what problem they will be charged with solving when they arrive in Weep, and so the chapters that are introduced from the perspective of Sarai and her sisters have a foreshadowing quality, revealing intriguing information, and yet remaining maddeningly coy and removed. As the delegation crosses the Elmuthaleth, the climber and acrobat Calixte starts a wager about the problem that awaits their combined skills in Weep, and I found myself placing similar bets as Taylor slowly unspools her story.

Strange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but makes bold choices with the consequences. While originally planned as a standalone, it is now a duology, so the book ends with a twist that leaves the protagonists in a seemingly impossible situation. If I have one reservation, it is that I don’t see how Taylor can write herself out of this one without jumping the shark. But perhaps I have too little faith. Whatever Muse of Nightmares delivers, Strange the Dreamer is magnificent in its own right. I’d be mad at myself for waiting this long to read it, if not for the fact that I can now go read the sequel immediately.

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You might also like City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Pride

Cover image for Pride by Ibi Zoboi by Ibi Zoboi

ISBN 978-0-06-256404-7

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.”

Zuri Benitez is an Afro-Latinx soon-to-be-senior from Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood. She is looking forward to a summer spent with her sister Janae, who is about to return from her first year of college, even though it will be tight quarters with five Benitez sisters packed into one oversize bedroom in their old apartment. But everything changes when the Darcy family moves into the newly built mini-mansion across the street, heralding the gentrification of Zuri’s beloved neighbourhood. Zuri dreams of going to college, and then coming back to serve her community, but will there be anything left of it by then? The wealthy, black Darcys don’t really fit into the hood, and to Zuri their money represents everything that is slowly destroying her piece of the world. But Janae falls hard for Ainsley, even as Zuri gets off to a bad start with his younger brother Darius. She would much rather spend her time with Warren, a boy from the neighbourhood who gets where she is coming from, but also attends an elite secondary school, suggesting he has a bright future ahead of him. But it is Warren’s past that she should really be concerned about, and it is Darius who seems to hold the key to that story.

Ibi Zoboi’s modernization of Pride and Prejudice is remixed for the present day, set in gentrifying Brooklyn where the old Afro-Latinx community is slowly being pushed out by new money. The story is told from Zuri’s first person perspective, but also incorporates her poetry, which she uses to work through her feelings about everything from boys to college to the changing landscape of her beloved Bushwick. Text messages serve the function that letters take in P&P, but without quite achieving the same impact. The theme of class remains strong, but set into the modern context of wealth disparity, which allows Zoboi to explore many of the same dynamics that are at play in Austen’s original novel. Zuri and Darius come from fundamentally different upbringings, with necessarily divergent scopes and views of the world. But as Darius settles into Brooklyn, and Zuri’s world begins to expand as she considers college, and leaving her neighbourhood for the first time, the gap between them begins to narrow.

One of the striking things about Jane Austen’s novels is her sharp eye for characterization—and sometimes caricature. Zoboi takes a somewhat softer approach to her characters, few of whom are as harshly delineated as their Austenian counterparts. Zuri’s parents, for example, are decidedly in love, and while Mama Benitez can still be a source of embarrassment, there is a respect between the parents that does not exist between the original Bennets. And Carrie, who parallels Caroline Bingley, shows a softer side in the end when she helps protect Zuri’s sister Layla from Warren’s predations. Part of this is likely related to Zoboi’s strong community theme for Pride. She is depicting the positive sides of Zuri’s Bushwick, and a big part of that is the way the people support and look out for one another. She freely loosens the relationship to the source material in service of this theme. Madrina, for example, is not an exact analogue to anyone from Pride and Prejudice. She has aspects of Aunt Gardener, but she also in some ways represents Mr. Bennet and the entail of Longbourn, since she is the owner of the building Zuri’s family has lived in her entire life. Zoboi strikes the right balance between the fun of recognizing the source material, and the need to tell her own story.

If Zoboi’s characters aren’t quite as sharp as Austen’s, her depiction of place is stronger. Elizabeth deeply feels the future potential loss of Longbourn to the entail, but Austen doesn’t manage to depict it quite as clearly as Zoboi articulates Zuri’s feelings about the slow death of her neighbourhood. Far from disturbing her rest, the ubiquitous sirens lull her to sleep at night. Block parties and gatherings on stoops or at corner bodegas are the thrumming heartbeat of the community, but that beat is getting weaker and quieter every year. In this sense, it is actually Bushwick that is the most clearly drawn character in Pride, which is perhaps fitting giving the theme of community that ties the novel together.

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyanby Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

Disclaimer:  I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

I carried that nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.”

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.

In her trademark exquisite prose, Esi Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, unexpectedly freed by a fight between Erasmus and Christopher in which he is a proxy, he discovers that there is little call for—or acceptance of—a Black man with such skills. He is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked. His freedom proves to be a complex thing.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though he does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was rebelling against in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take him to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. The reader will not lack for entertainment on this account, however it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes this novel unforgettable.

Fresh Ink

Cover image for Fresh Ink Edited by Lamar Giles Edited by Lamar Giles

ISBN 978-1-5427-6628-3

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

It became pretty freaking clear that, book after book, adventure after adventure, the heroes weren’t like me at all.” –Lamar Giles

Fresh Ink is collection of short fiction highlighting diverse voices, put together by Lamar Giles, who is credited as one of the founders of the We Need Diverse Books movement. The majority of the stories are contemporary, with a strong focus on romance, but historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy are also included. The short format also includes one comic, and one play. With the exception of the reprint of “Tags” by Walter Dean Myer—to whose memory the collection is dedicated—the stories were written for this anthology. Contributor Aminah Mae Safi won a contest seeking new writers to feature in the book.

Everyone will have different favourites in a short story collection, and for me there were a few standouts in Fresh Ink. Sara Farizan, author of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, and If You Could Be Mine, offers up “Why I Learned to Cook,” the touching story of a bisexual Persian girl who is out to most of the people in her life, but struggling with how to tell her grandmother, whose rejection she fears. This one put tears in my eyes. I was also gripped by “Catch, Pull, Drive” by Schuyler Bailar, a transgender athlete who draws on his own experiences in a tense, first person narrative about a high school swimmer facing down the first day of practice after coming out as trans on Facebook. Both writers spoke at ALA Annual 2018, along with Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Adaptation, who contributed “Meet Cute,” a story about two girls who fall for one another in line at a fan convention, one dressed as Agent Scully, the other as gender-flipped Sulu.

The collection comes to a strong close with “Super Human” by Nicola Yoon, author of The Sun is Also a Star, and Everything, Everything. The world it is set in seems much like our own, but featuring a super hero who has become disillusioned with the people he is trying to save. The point of view is that of the young woman who has been given the seemingly impossible task of convincing X that humanity is still worth saving. But first she must get X to tell her why he has given up hope. This little story packs a big punch, and nicely rounds out an anthology that offers a variety of short fiction which allows diverse readers to see themselves reflected, often in the words of an author who shares their particular experiences.

Planetside

Cover image for Planetside by Michael Mammayby ISBN 978-0-06-269466-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

I needed to pound my head against a wall where nobody could see me. The stench around Mallot’s disappearance was getting stronger. A high councilor’s kid had disappeared into nowhere, and somebody wanted it covered up.”

Colonel Carl Butler is working a semi-retirement post at Student Command, only a year from finishing his service, when his old friend General Serata calls in a favour. The son of a High Councilor is Missing in Action on Cappa, one of the highest conflict zones in the universe. But Lieutenant Mallot isn’t just missing; he disappeared off a medical transport enroute back to Cappa Base, and hasn’t been seen since. Worse, no one on Cappa Base seems to want to cooperate with the investigation into his disappearance. Butler arrives on Cappa Base to find tensions running high. Medical Command doesn’t want him in the hospital questioning their personnel. The Spec Ops colonel who has been stationed on Cappa for over two years never leaves the planet, and won’t return Butler’s calls. Something is seriously wrong, but figuring out what may come at price Butler isn’t prepared to pay.

Planetside is narrated in the first person by Butler, who has the kind of narrative voice you might expect in a hard-boiled mystery or military sci-fi. So I was understandably expecting a hard-drinking, womanizing, fairly unlikeable narrator who would probably cheat on the wife he left behind on their home planet. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that while Butler is indeed hard-drinking—he flouts military rules to transport a case of his favourite whiskey to Cappa Base—none of the women we encounter are set up as flimsy love interests or sex objects. I was particularly worried on first meeting Alenda, who is assigned to assist Butler when he arrives on Cappa. Alenda, however, is a thoroughly competent aide, though it takes her a while to earn Butler’s trust. She also has a wife and kids back home. Butler is a bit protective of her in a way that is kind of annoying, but which makes sense for his character. Mammay’s space is also not pasty white, with characters from Alenda to Xiang, Patel, and Chu.

The planet Cappa has strong parallels to the Middle East. It is a desert planet, and Spec Ops intel says that while most of the locals are friendly, there is small but powerful insurgency that continues to fight occupation. Cappa is one of the few planets humans have discovered inhabited by sentient, humanoid life forms, but the desire to mine the silver that is key to many of their technologies overrides any better intentions that might have argued against occupying the planet. Space Command has been fighting there for more than eighteen years, with no end in sight. Mammay doesn’t do a lot of world-building outside of the situation on Cappa, and we don’t know a lot about how humans expanded across the universe. But we do know that it has been a ruthless and imperialist resource-driven expansion that has wiped out lifeforms on planets not habitable by humans in order to facilitate mining. While the lack of sexism and homophobia is refreshing, the military and political structure of this universe is rife with its own issues, mirroring on a universal level the problems that are currently destroying our planet.

Butler spends much of the book trying to get a meeting with Spec Ops chief Colonel Karikov, who has a distinct Kurtz/Heart of Darkness thing going. He hasn’t been up to Cappa Base in over two years, and when Butler digs deeper into the situation, he can’t find anyone who has spoken directly to the Colonel anytime recently. The early part of the book has a vibe that is more mystery than military, but when Butler heads down to the surface, things get more tactical, as obstacles are thrown in the way of his getting to Karikov’s base. These parts were a bit slower going for me, but I was engaged enough in the mystery to push through the descriptive military engagements which I found less interesting, but which would no doubt appeal to the military sc-fi fans who are the more likely audience for this book.

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