Review of Inkarna by Nerine Dorman

Inkarna by Nerine DormanTitle: Inkarna
Author:
 Nerine Dorman
Published: 15 June 2012
Publisher:
 Dark Continents Publishing
Genre: dark fantasy, urban fantasy romance
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

In 1966 in Cape Town, Lizzie is about to die for the first time. She is an old woman, and one of only two members of House Adamastor, a secret society based on ancient Egyptian mythology. Lizzie is an Inkarna and will be resurrected in a new body after a few decades spent in Per Ankh, the House of Life in the underworld.

But when Lizzie is reincarnated it is 2012 – 5 years later than expected – and she is reeling from the trauma of being stuck in the Sea of Nun, the ancient Egyptian version of limbo. And instead of reincarnating into the body of a 3-year old girl, she ends up in the body of Ashton Kennedy a 21-year old goth rocker with tattoos, piercings and the kind of long hair she considers “slovenly”. Ashton was in a coma after being run over by an SUV, and Lizzie soon discovers that he is the kind of person who deserved it. She’s also unnerved by the fact that Ashton has a devoted girlfriend – Marlise – who stuck by him throughout the coma and expects to continue their relationship.

While struggling to cope with contemporary technology, having a male body, and trying to build a better life from the ruins of Ashton’s, Lizzie/Ash tries to contact House Adamastor only to find that it has all but disappeared. Something has gone very wrong, and the fact that Lizzie ended up Ashton’s body was the first sign of a sinister influence. Further investigations reveal a conspiracy, the beginnings of a war between the Houses, and the hunt for a deadly artefact. To make things worse, Marlise and Ash find themselves haunted by Ashton’s ghost, who is enraged that Lizzie has taken his body and his life.

The major drawcard of this novel is gender game Dorman plays with Lizzie/Ash. It’s a big shock for Lizzie – a straight, prim and proper little old lady who dies in the 60s – to suddenly be transformed into a hulking bastard of a man who she frequently describes as a “thug”. She is relieved though, that Ashton’s size stops people from harassing her when she takes dodgy trains at odd hours (Cape Town doesn’t have the safest railway service, to put it mildly). Everyone who knows Ashton is also baffled when the man they thought they knew stops swearing, starts drinking tea, and generally tries to behave like a decent human being for a change. As a character, Marlise’s presence brings Lizzie’s gender troubles into sharp relief and offers excellent opportunities for her to face some of the more intimate aspects of the transformation. Initially, Lizzie tries to avoid Marlise, but eventually has no choice but to ask her for help. Ashton wasn’t exactly the kind of person who made loyal friends, and begins the story without money, a job, or a home. They stay together in a granny flat outside Marlise’s parents’ house, and Lizzie is uncomfortably aware of being a man sleeping in bed with an unmarried woman who wants to have sex with her/him/Lizzie/Ashton. The question of sex and sexuality is one that will have to be addressed – Lizzie was straight, but doesn’t want to have sex with men as a man. The thought of having sex with Marlise horrifies her, but if she’s going to stick with the heterosexual norm then that means having sex with women.

I’ve been speaking about “Lizzie” and using the pronouns “she” and “her”, but it’s not long before you realise that such a simple way of referring to this character is completely inadequate. At first it feels right to think of “her”, but the gender of the body can’t be ignored, raising the question of whether it’s the body or the mind that defines gender. Soon, the body (or kha, as it’s known in the mythology) starts to impart its previous inhabitant’s habits on Lizzie, and she begins to swear and behave more aggressively. She is no longer Lizzie, but she’s not Ashton either – she/he is “Ash” a compromise between the two that unfortunately has no suitable pronoun in English. Over and above this, she/he is Nefretkheperi, which is the Ren or true name of this being, which has its own Ba (loosely translated as ‘personality’) no matter what body it’s in, or whether it’s dead and in the underworld.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the use of Egyptian mythology, particularly the mythology concerning the afterlife and reincarnation. With the modern South African setting, there are no mummies, pyramids, or organs in jars; the followers of this faith mostly study and practise ancient Egyptian magic. There are secret Egyptian societies – Houses – all over the world although it seems that these Houses are self-contained and don’t communicate much with each other. House members are regularly reincarnated, and while they’re dead they socialise in Per Ankh – the House of Life. The Inkarna – those who are reincarnated – are the leaders of each House, and the most powerful in the use of ancient magic. One amusing detail about Lizzie/Ash, is that Lizzie, despite being a little old lady, was so skilled that she could do far more with her magic than Ash could ever hope to do with his muscles. She could have kicked his ass, and in Ashton’s body Ash feels weak until he is able to regain the powers that Lizzie had mastered, including telepathy, telekinesis and an ability to unlock doors.

The novel uses a lot of jargon, and I was glad that I’d studied a bit of Egyptian mythology at varsity, so that I was at least vaguely familiar with some of the words and concepts. I think that someone unacquainted with the mythology might be a bit lost, although the frequency with which Lizzie/Ash repeats most words and phrases means you can eventually pick up their meanings on your own. There’s plenty of time to get yourself acquainted with the mythology, as most of the story is quite relaxed – Lizzie transitions into Ash, gets a job, tries to define his relationship with Marlise, and goes looking for Leonora, the last living member of House Adamastor. Things heat up once Ashton starts making his ghostly appearances and Ash learns more about the conspiracy that put Lizzie in the wrong body. His relationship with Marlise slowly evolves, and although Marlise clearly wants it to be sexual, she is at least happy that Ash is a friendlier, more considerate person than Ashton, who cheated on her and dumped her repeatedly.

It’s a good story, but there were some things that bugged me about it. Ashton’s parents are around in the beginning of the novel, and Lizzie notes sadly that these poor people sold their house to pay Ashton’s medical bills. Because Lizzie/Ash tries to make amends for the terrible things Ashton did, I thought this would include an apology to his parents at the very least. But once he leaves to live with Marlise, his parents disappear from the plot without so much as a phone call to check up on their son, who just woke up from a months-long coma. I felt that an emotional connection was left dangling.

Then Lizzie/Ash adapts a little too quickly to life in 2012, I thought. Besides an inability to drive and difficulty using the internet, jumping 46 years into the future doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue. Cape Town is still familiar enough for her/him to get around easily. Ash mentions the SUVs our politicians drive and at one point voices a concern about security cameras; I wondered if the character would really be thinking like that so soon.

Some plot details were too clichéd or predictable. Marlise is a bit of a damsel and when she’s in distress, Ash comes in like a goth knight wielding Egyptian magic to save her. There are some rather flat ‘minion’ characters. It was no surprise that Ash eventually overcame his sexuality issues and started sleeping with Marlise. The romance builds slowly, but Ash’s reluctance and the sexualised or attractive ways in which he is sometimes described make a sexual relationship inevitable as far as literary tradition is concerned. Admittedly, I wanted this to happen, and I if I were the author I would never have passed up the opportunity to make Ash confront this issue. The sex scenes were a bit too melodramatic for me (much like Ash’s angsty narration in general), but for the most part the romance was ok; I was just hoping that, with the gender play going on, Ash’s sexual awakening would involve something more interesting than him suddenly enjoying having a cock. I predicted a few other things as well, but they’re spoiler-ish so I won’t say more.

Finally, I didn’t quite like the way the book ended. I won’t get into the details, but it had a jocular tone that felt completely wrong under the circumstances. Something creepier would have been much better. The final scene paves the way for a great sequel but laughing about it seems dismissive, while a sense of horror would have been more intriguing.

But, flaws aside, it was a quick easy read and I enjoyed it. I was hoping Ash would cut his long hair (I don’t share the author’s taste for long-haired men) but I liked him and Marlise well enough. Since the book is half dedicated to a dead musician named Peter, and Peter Steele matches the description of Ash, I had a very clear picture of the character in my head throughout the book.

I loved the fact that the novel was set in Cape Town and I knew many of the locations very well. The Maitland Cemetery where the first scene is set is very close to my parents’ home. Ash gets a job at a bar in Long Street, where I’ve spent a lot of time eating out, shopping, having drinks with friends or just walking around. The route he takes to the train station through the dingy Golden Acre Mall is the same path I’ve taken many times to get a bus home from work or when travelling to and from the city centre.

My little shelf of SA genre fiction is slowly growing, and I was glad to add Inkarna to it.

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