‘Fallow’ by Ashley Blooms

It’s rare to find a story as beautiful as it is bleak, with the ability to crack you apart in just the right way. I avoid tearjerker books and movies guaranteed to make you cry, yet I love stories that leave you feeling like you’ve been knifed in the lungs. ‘Fallow’ by Ashley Blooms, is one, and you can read it in the May 2017 issue of Shimmer.

fallow-ashley-blooms

William is a ten-year-old boy living in a trailer on the edge of a fallow field. The dictionary definition of ‘fallow’ refers to farmland that has been left unsown because it needs to recover or because it’s unneeded, but it also describes an inactive or unproductive period of time. Synonyms include ’empty’, ‘neglected’, ‘stagnant’, ‘depressed’. The story defines it as ‘a word for places where things don’t grow’, and William has never seen anything grow in the field, even though the drunken owner, Earl, ploughs it anyway.

In the first scene, William plays spin-the-bottle with his best friend Misty and her sister Penny, but, bizarrely, the bottle never points at any of them. The game was William’s idea, and it’s like the world itself is somehow rejecting his attempt at affection. The girls eventually go home to their trailer and for reasons he cannot articulate, William plants the bottle in the field:

He doesn’t have the words to describe how the field reminds him of himself. The dark shape of it, the earth torn up and left to cool in the dark, a little steam rising. How it feels like maybe the field needs something only William has, and all William has is the bottle.

The next morning a baffled crowd gathers around a tall, green, glass statue that has inexplicably sprouted in the same spot. For William – an impoverished child who has just likened himself to a field where nothing grows – it seems to be the only productive, interesting thing he’s ever done, and it’s like a stand-in for his personal growth and self-expression. Although few people pay attention to William, lots of people now pay attention to the field.

Misty says the bottle-statue looks pretty, and William insists it looks a bit like him. He continues to bury things in the field, developing an understanding for what grows and what doesn’t, so that he only makes the field an offering if he thinks it will give him something in return.

There’s something there, in that refusal to give without getting, and I had it in mind when he tries to act on the crush he has on Misty. Unfortunately, his only understanding of intimate relationships come from his mother and the various men she brings home, and what starts out as a cute, sweet kiss between ten-year-olds quickly turns ugly. (TW: this story features sexual abuse between children.)

Blooms handles this with such sensitivity and care that William manages to be simultaneously repugnant and empathetic. You can be repulsed by what he does but feel for him and understand him all at once, in his poverty, loneliness and longing. It helps a lot, I think, that he’s a child who doesn’t know what he’s doing but is making an effort anyway, and he’s got enough self-awareness to see his mistakes.

Here, for example, he scares me:

Misty said she would meet him. She promised. William waits until his hands get cold, and then he walks home, feeling tired and hungry and something else. Something like anger, only smaller and meaner.

But here, I feel sorry for him:

Misty hasn’t even seen all the things that he’s made for her. She hasn’t mentioned them, not even once. William’s vision blurs and he looks down at his own two feet.

I love the way Blooms uses evocative, recurring details throughout the story. I could pick them apart for ages, but that would spoil the story for so just consider, for now, the bottle in the opening paragraph:

The base of the bottle has a deep crack running through it that snakes along the length, almost all the way through. The crack raises up a little, just enough to tear their skin if they aren’t careful.

It’s the one they use to play spin-the-bottle, and it functions as a tool for William to start expressing his confused, premature sense of sexuality. The crack carries the subtle threat of hurt and blood, and its cutting edge is recalled, when William’s mother is introduced:

William lives with his mother, who is beautiful, and younger than any other mother William has ever met. Her name is Shannon. She has white-blond hair and a scar in the crook of her arm and even that is beautiful–in the way that it raises up from the rest of her skin, in the way that it curves, in the way that it never changes.

That sense of danger, damage and sexuality is significant, and heightened when you realise that William’s relationship with his mother is a bit worrying. She’ll come home drunk and dance with him, or crawl into his bed, her breath fever-hot against his neck as she tells him things she has no one else to tell to. When William kisses Misty, he ‘thinks of his mother and wonders if he is doing it right’. Which is not to say that his mother is a bad person – Blooms gives her enough character for us to understand that, like William, she seems to be trying her best in difficult circumstances. Shannon’s working all the time to care for herself and her son, and she goes on dates because, like most people, she wants a partner who loves her; who can hold that against her? She might be likened to a cracked glass bottle, but it’s worth noting that the bottle was the least broken one that Misty found among the ‘tired things, slowly fading towards the same color of rusty brown’ in the barn. The sense of poverty and stagnation is palpable and unnerving without being overwhelming.

And that, I think, is also why this story is so good – it’s brutal but delicately so, incredibly thoughtful and nuanced. I hope to see more of Blooms’ work.

The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

the-liminal-peopleTitle: The Liminal People
Series: Liminal #1
Author:
Ayize Jama-Everett
Publisher: 
Small Beer Press
Published:
 January 2012
Genre:
 science fiction, fantasy, thriller, superheroes
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
8/10

It’s a rare pleasure to read something without knowing anything about it (and if you want to do the same, I’ll just tell you now that I recommend this very highly). The Liminal People came in a Small Beer Press Humble Books Bundle I bought a while back and I read it because it I was looking for something fresh and well-crafted but relatively short. I trusted Small Beer to provide both quirk and class and I got exactly what I didn’t know I needed: a pacey sff thriller with edgy writing I want to read all day and some very cool ideas.

Taggert calls himself a healer, but although that word captures the core of the person he considers himself to be, it doesn’t accurately describe the extent of his powers.

I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker. With a little focus, I can manipulate my body and others’ on a molecular level. With a lot of focus, I can push organs and whole biological systems around.

What this means is that when Taggert is in close proximity to someone, he can gauge their psychological state (happy, anxious, finger-on-the-trigger) by reading things like heart rate, muscle tension, body chemistry, etc. He can see what medical problems they’ve had, have or might develop, and what kind of physical state they’re in (“The veins are tight, lots of blood coursing through them. She’s been working out.”). He can hack bodies and heal them, but those same abilities allow him to cause insane levels of damage and pain. He can instantly turn hereditary defects into immediate suffering or force the body to turn on itself in the most excruciating ways. Or he could just make snipers take a nap and help an anxious kid stay calm.

Taggert can also transform his own body, even changing his melanin count:

I need to be less black to pull this off, so I focus until I can tell that I probably look mulatto. I close off my hair follicles and pull the thick mats that I have out and flush them down the toilet. Then I focus on slick black hair, coated in oil. I let it grow until I can fix a small rubber band at the base of my neck. Since I’m at a toilet I vomit up sixty-five pounds, making sure to check my discharge for too much stomach acids. I just need to lose the pounds, not my voice. When I step out I look like a sexy young intern that works too hard.

He’s a very useful person to have around, which is why his boss, Nordeen, keeps him on a very short but comfortable leash. Nordeen has some kind of mysterious power that Taggert cannot figure out, claiming only that he can’t be lied to.

It’s enough to keep Taggert in check and he’s ok with being a crime lord’s pawn largely because he’s a self-reflective man who wants to understand his power, and Nordeen was the first person to mentor him, a kind of terrifying father-figure:

If you can understand why I stayed with Nordeen, then you can understand me a little better. I’m not a sycophant. I don’t crave power, nor do I have a desire to be under anyone who does. Nordeen’s description of the power inside of me was perfect: “the thing that decided to take up residence inside of me.” On rough days, it made me feel like an alien beast or, as Yasmine would say, like a freak. But on good days, when I exercised my power in right relation to the world, I felt nearly unstoppable. I grew with power. Living a bipolar life, rocketing between freak and human, made me long for some stability. And despite the bowel-spilling terror Nordeen invoked, he offered that. I knew that under his protection and guidance I would learn more about myself.

Taggert’s stability is disrupted when his ex-girlfriend uses an untraceable, one-time-only phone number to call him for help. Yasmine was – is – the love of Taggert’s life, despite the fact that she called him a freak, something he never really got over. He’s still angry, but he loves her without requiring anything in return, and of course he’s harbouring all sorts of hopes about what her desperate call for help might mean for their relationship. More importantly though, when he promised to come if she ever needed him, he meant it. So he gives Nordeen as little of the truth as he can and escapes Morocco for London, where Yasmine’s daughter has gone missing. Searching for her brings Taggert into contact with an underground exisitence of other powers like him and, as Nordeen has warned him, ‘People like us tend to stay away from each other for good reason’. However, it’s not clear if that’s true or if Nordeen is just manipulating him.

I’ve mentioned before that the current glut of superhero movies – ranging from decent to Jesus Christ how could it possibly be this shit – have given me superhero fatigue. Right now, it’s a genre defined by mildly entertaining mediocrity, but maybe I should be looking at superhero novels, if The Liminal People is anything to go by. It has so much more nuance and style that it has me rethinking the potential of the superhero. We tend to exploit them for sfx orgies but these days they almost completely fail to satisfy my (now dwindling) desire for big-budget spectacle. Taggert, however, is more impressive than any superhero I’ve seen in a long time; why is that?

Firstly, it’s great to have a black superhero and a diverse cast of characters for a change, not only as a matter of authenticity but because it’s more interesting than the bland norm of the white western male. An added bonus is that racial identity is significant, and not only in comparison to whiteness. Taggert is not a character who happens to be black but could be white with a few simple tweaks. He sees his identity as being rooted in blackness, but this doesn’t mean his life is consumed by racial oppression. This is about who he is, who he chooses to be, and the stories he involves himself in. I’m not dismissing stories about racism, but they’re heavy as fuck, so it’s cool to read a book about a black dude that isn’t all about what white people have done to him.

Secondly, I like the way Taggert has mastered his abilities. Many superheroes seem to look inward: it’s all about understanding their own mechanisms and learning to use them with greater precision or potency. Taggert’s approach is different: he fine tunes his skills but he also educates himself. He studies physiology, neurology, psychology, genetics, etc. because his talents would be crude if he didn’t understand all the complex systems her was working with. The following character analysis he does on a teenage girl is a good example of how he rings together his powers, education, intuition and life experience:

One day she’ll be fat and bloated, like her mother; I can already feel a slower metabolism than normal. Which is why she smokes, so she doesn’t have to eat and so she doesn’t have to work off those calories.

Taggert is one of the most intelligent, highly educated superheroes out there, but without being the kind of cliché troubled genius we see in Tony Stark or Dr Strange. Part of his appeal is also philosophical: Taggert is constantly reflecting his past, his morals, his relationships (with his brother, Nordeen, Yasmine). He wants to figure out what it means to have powers, and to exist in a world with others like him.

The novel occasionally falls prey to the common pitfalls of superhero stories though. There’s some overdone posturing and a floppy one-liner or two. Taggert can be too slick at times, and I got tired of the way he oversexualises Yasmine, especially when he describes her breasts as “heaving and falling quicker than California tectonic plates”. Tectonic plates? Really? I get that he’s intensely attracted to her and his feelings are exacerbated by an obsessive longing that’s stayed strong for almost two decades, but I’m not exactly moved when I see this expressed as tits-and-ass lust.

I can let that slide though, because I love pretty much everything else about this book. It’s helping save the superhero.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Title: Sorcerer to the Crown
Series: Sorcerer Royal #1
Author:
Zen Cho
Publisher: 
Pan Macmillan
Published:
 September 2015
Genre:
 fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the publisher
Rating:
 
8/10

sorcerer-to-the-crown

In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe has just become the first black African Sorcerer Royal. Besides stepping into a minefield of bigotry, he takes up his position at a time of crisis for the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers – England is suffering from a shortage of magic, a calamity that Z has a duty to address in addition to sorting out the Government’s diplomatic gaffe with the witches of another country and the rumours that he murdered the previous Sorcerer Royal, who happened to be his adoptive father.

To escape London for a few days, he travels out of town to give a speech at a school for gentlewitches, where girls of the upper and middle classes are taught to suppress their magical powers. Because, obviously, women are too frail for thaumaturgy. The illogic of misogyny is in full force here. Zacharias has long suspected this assumption to be false, and has in fact been researching the household magic often practiced by female servants but ignored by the gentry. The wilful blindness of bigotry is in full force too. Zacharias’s suspicions are confirmed when the girls show more natural thaumaturgical skill than displayed by the Royal Society snots.

He also meets the formidable Prunella Gentleman, an English–Indian orphan who was taken in by the schoolmistress as a baby. Prunella has such a natural talent for magic that she can throw together complicated impromptu spells whenever she needs them. But unlike Zacharias, who had the advantage of genuinely loving parents, her benefactor sees her more as a prized servant than a daughter, and offers her nothing more than a life of servitude.

Prunella is not the sort of person to accept this bullshit, and when she discovers priceless thaumaturgical treasures left behind by her father, she decides to pursue the life she knows she deserves. She throws on an invisibility spell as easily as a coat and stows away with Zacharias. He’s appalled at the impropriety but hopes her talents will change English society’s beliefs about women, and takes her on as an apprentice.

Sorcerer to the Crown is an absolute delight from beginning to end. It’s charming and funny, full of action, engaging characters and thoughtful worldbuilding. The language is rather pompous if not outright purple, but the style is quite suitable. You get the sense that Cho had a lot of fun with the bombastic sentences and archaic words, and I did too. But where the novel really excels is in its depiction of prejudice and intersectionality. I’m seriously impressed with what Cho has achieved here.

From the moment he steps into the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers at the vulnerable age of six, Zacharias understands that he represents the entire black race to these old white men. That’s one of the ways in which bigotry functions: people aren’t viewed as individuals but as undifferentiated parts of a monolithic group. The behaviour of one is used to characterise all, usually only when it’s negative. When Zacharias casts a spell to demonstrate his magical abilities, he’s not just proving that he deserves a place in the Society – he’s fighting the assumption that black people are little more than talking animals. And he has to do it as a tiny child with a crowd of strange old men grumbling about being “summoned to watch a piccaninny stutter” (4). If he fails, they’ll never chalk it up to nerves, intimidation or youth; they’re going to say that black people are stupid and can’t do magic.

Of course Zacharias performs brilliantly, but since racism isn’t rational, no amount of talent can dispel the general belief that he’s a barbarian. The fact that he wields the staff that only the chosen Sorcerer Royal could wield grants him tenuous acceptance only because no one can argue with the fact of the staff. However, Zacharias doesn’t have a familiar, which is highly irregular. And because he was the last person to see Sir Stephen before he died, and he’s never revealed exactly what happened that night, some members of the Society are inclined to believe he murdered his benefactor. Never mind that Zacharias was, in part, so traumatised by the death of his father that he hasn’t been able to talk to these assholes about it.

His relationship with Sir Stephen isn’t a simple one though. He loves his father and is loved in return, but being both adopted and black, he treaded carefully for fear that “he might find he was no longer wanted” (17). As a result, “their relationship could never have been mistaken for one of equality” (120).

Sir Stephen lives on as a ghost and communicates regularly with Zacharias, and it’s interesting to see how death has changed their relationship. Zacharais can be more straightforward with his father, because he no longer has to worry about being left destitute. The gaps created by “wealth, influence age and obligation” […] had closed imperceptibly” and Zacharias is able “to see in the spirit the frailties of the man” (120).

And Sir Stephen certainly has his shortcomings; he’s not an unfailingly good, wise saviour figure. For example, he only signed Zacharias’s emancipation papers when he was thirteen. You’d think he would not have dithered when freeing his son from slavery, but he’s perhaps too comfortable to be truly revolutionary. One of the moments I find notable in the book is when Sir Stephen reprimands Zacharias for being overzealous about reform: “But you have not my advantages, you know. Besides, I know my limits, my dear fellow – I know my limits” (81).

Yes, Sir Stephen is suggesting that social reform is best handled by the privileged, and you don’t want to change things too much because, I suppose, it’s hard to keep a stiff upper lip with society shifting towards equality beneath you. What I like about this exchange is that these words are literally uttered by an old dead white man whose character isn’t purely good or evil, just tainted by privilege. As generous and well-meaning as Sir Stephen is, he was never going to change society.

Mind you, Z isn’t a radical either. Raised to be a consummate gentleman, his reaction to racism has been to counteract stereotypes by being as dignified and disciplined as possible:

His chief aim had always been that he should stand beyond reproach in word and deed, since his colour seemed to prove a ground for any allegation. (236)

What this means, is that he’s a stiff, reserved person. He never loses his poise, which may be admirable, but it’s because he doesn’t have the freedom to do so:

his life had been such as to cultivate his ability to feign complaisance even when he was angriest. For all the privileges Sir Stephen’s patronage had lent him, Zacharias could not often afford the liberty of honest emotion. (41)

So Zacharias is character within a character; his civility [is] a polite fiction, disguising very different feelings (171). You don’t quite see the dual nature of his existence in the book, perhaps because his true side has been so deeply suppressed, but the issue is there and it’s something I’d be interested to see developed in later books.

Prunella is a stark contrast; she’s my new role model for not giving a fuck. She knows she’s talented and pretty and is never afraid to admit it or use it to her advantage. She’s got little regard for etiquette or anyone’s convenience, but she’s not a boor. She’s ruthless yet kind. She’s not interested in pleasing anyone but herself and it’s this selfishness that empowers her and saves her from being boring. It also gives her the means to change society in ways that Zacharias cannot, although at the same time she needs his support to do it.

Prunella is such an adept character, so unfailingly smart and talented, that I had to consider the possibility that she’s too perfect. Not for very long though; I find her immensely enjoyable, partly because she’s a bit frightening but without being demonised the way capable women often are. And I love that she doesn’t have to spend most of the book figuring out that she is neither ordinary nor a doormat, as often seems to happen to young female protagonists of the special snowflake variety.

There are also moments when you realise how desperately Prunella needs her self-confidence. As a brown female orphan, she’s even more disempowered and vulnerable than Zacharias, and this is where Cho’s depiction of intersectionality comes into play. Both protagonists are POC, but they experience privilege and prejudice differently. Because her skin is lighter, Prunella has an easier time being accepted in London’s high society, and she has a bit more freedom because she’s not in a public position of authority.

That said, she has no legitimate way of using her talents to make a decent living as a man might. At best, she could use magic to aid whatever menial work she could find. Zacharias, as a man with “all the ease and assurance that could be imparted by a capital education and a lifetime’s intercourse with the good and great of the magical world” (9), remains blind to the vulnerability of Prunella’s position until she explains it to him.

And he’s shocked when Prunella states that she has little interest in scholarship and will be devoting her time to entering society and finding a respectable husband. From his perspective, she could want nothing more than to study magic, now that she has the luxury of his support. He also considers it her moral responsibility: she has unprecedented power, which could be highly destructive if she does not know how to wield it. But what will happen, Prunella asks, when her apprenticeship is over? She is not being lazy or stupid here, and she is not consumed by a longing for romance. She’s being practical: the right husband will give her the security she needs to change English society’s approach to feminine magic.

The prejudices of English society are actually shown to be holding it back – a notable aspect of the plot and worldbuilding. From what we learn of other countries and Fairyland (the source of magic), the narrow-minded nature of English society is actually causing it damage. Bigotry is, after all, poison.

Now, despite my enthusiasm, I don’t think this is a masterpiece. The novel’s weakest point is probably its plot, which gets a bit out of hand and isn’t particularly memorable in comparison to the book’s many other charms. The POV also jumps all over the place, although this might be something that’s more likely to bug me now that I’m editing for a living. The less pedantic me can ignore it, and anyway I like this book so much I’m willing to overlook its flaws. Rather, I want to give out copies as shining examples of how you can write diverse, thoughtful fantasy and be entertaining as fuck.

 

Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light by Sarah McCarry

Stephenie Meyer has a new book out. I still haven’t written one. She probably has four cars. I’m wondering if someday owning a small house with enough space for one cat to be happy is too lofty a life goal for a freelance editor. I’m glad I chose this career but I obviously didn’t do it for the money.

blue-is-a-darkness

Artwork by Jasu Hu

I’m thinking about this not because I’m feeling sorry for myself (well, not much) but because the day before I found out Meyer had churned out another manuscript I read what will probably be one of my favourite pieces of fiction this year: “Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” by Sarah McCarry, published on Tor.com. It’s a sardonic take on paranormal YA and a haunting depiction of loneliness and neglected ambition. The main character, as she no doubt knows, is a cliché who moved to a big, cold city with her “pockets full of dreams” only to find that “the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known”. She works as an assistant to a literary agent and spends all her time not writing her own novel. At the moment, she’s critiquing a draft of the fourth book in a YA paranormal romance series. It’s junk but it makes a ton of cash. In this latest installment, the hot new boy at school turns out to be a vampire.

The narrator knows an actual vampire (or at least that’s how she thinks of him), who buys her drinks every night after work and is helping her critique the manuscript. He’s a debonair, unthreatening kind of a monster and he’s not trying to kill her, turn her or even sleep with her. He really does seem to be just a friend, and you get the sense that the narrator wishes he was more of a romantic cliché, because then he could save her from poverty, obscurity and death. Like in Twilight, which the story often alludes to.

It disdains the cheap tropes of paranormal YA romance, and that, of course, is a big part of why I love it. I’ve found the genre too boring and sexist to ever be even a guilty pleasure. McCarry’s story also dips into the tedious aspects of editing – “Consider deleting second and third use of ‘lion,’ I write in the margins. To avoid repetition.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to make notes about avoiding repetition since I started editing books.

On the other hand, I also admire McCarry’s story because of the way it explores the desire that could lurk behind the scorn we have for romance, and the pitiful appeal of cliché. Erica Jong sums it up in Fear of Flying: “all the romantic nonsense you yearned for with half your heart and mocked bitterly with the other half”.

The narrator obviously doesn’t think much of paranormal YA or the book she’s critiquing, but the author has four cars and seems happy and friendly. The narrator, however, is “penniless and unhappy and not in the least a pleasant person, so perhaps Rosamunde and her authoress have made better choices after all”. Rosamunde is the protagonist of the series and she embodies the (apparently profitable) silliness of other female paranormal YA protagonists:

Rosamunde has proven a magnet for supernatural entities of all kinds. Two werewolf brothers, several half-demons, and one fallen angel have told her she is beautiful, but she doesn’t believe them. Rosamunde is certain she is only average. Her skin is soft and smells of roses. She enjoys bubble baths, the Brontës, and Frappuccinos.

The narrator, in contrast to a life of hot scented baths and overpriced drinks, spends her weekends in the library because “[t]he building has heat and you do not have to pay anything in order to sit all afternoon and cry like a teenager into your open notebook”. The self-deprecating misery is just the right pitch of wry exaggeration, while the poverty is quietly, keenly on point, running throughout the story and driving it forward with increasing force.

I share an apartment with four other girls in a part of the city that will not be cheap for much longer. Once a month a black family moves out of my building and a white couple moves in. My roommates, like me, all came here to do things other than the things they are now doing.

 

—Have you ever had foie gras? the vampire asks. —No? What about escargot? He is amused by how little I know about the world. I am bemused by how little rich people know about lack.

It’s this lack – of money, love, recognition – that lies at the core of all her desperate longings, that make her want to be Rosamunde even though she knows Rosamunde is absurd. She can pick apart the shortcomings of paranormal romance with academic precision, and yet that narrative still appeals to her because it’s so much better than the life she’s living. Notably, none of the characters have names, except for Rosamunde and the high-school vampire, Marcus.

McCarry tells the story with skilfully executed minimalism: it’s sparse and straightforward, stripped of quotation marks and sentiment. I enjoy the way this sort of style leaves an open space into which your own thoughts and feelings pour, should the story move you, and “Blue is a Darkness” certainly does. The effect is evocative and leaves a lingering sense of subtle, satisfying melancholy. I get drawn back in and find that the story has more to offer. I want to read it again and again.

 

Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Author:
Masha du Toit
Publisher: 
self-published
Published:
 12 April 2014
Genre:
 YA, fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating:
 
8/10

Crooks & Straights is a lovely read. I say that without qualification, but I want to add that it’s particularly impressive because it’s self-published. I’m also really pleased that it’s South African, and it’s set in Walmer Estate and surrounds in Cape Town, close to where I lived and worked until recently.

The neighbourhood has a quirky, old-school feel similar to the real one, but is set in an alternate fantasy world where magical creatures and humans with magical abilities are a well-known fact. Some of them are familiar, such as werewolves and genies, but author Masha du Toit uses a wide variety of her own eccentric creatures indigenous to South Africa, like haarskeerders, snaartjies, vlêrremeisies, roos-dorinkies, streepies … Many of these are as unfamiliar to the characters as they would be to readers because, for centuries, magicals (or ‘crooks’, as opposed to non-magical ‘straights’) have been persecuted. In Du Toit’s world, they parallel other minorities: people of colour, women, LGBTQ groups, etc. Apartheid, therefore, was not only about the oppression of the black majority, but about the suppression of magic. Crooks and straights fought together in the liberation movements, and the historic neighbourhood of District Six was famed for its acceptance of magic in addition to its racial and cultural diversity.

So, when sixteen-year-old Gia moves to Walmer Estate, near to where District Six used to be, she’s struck by the remnants of that vibe: a strong community spirit characterised by diversity and a relaxed approach to magic. Her parents are fashion designers who fit right in with a neighbourhood known for its small businesses and artisans. There are signs of magic at their new house, such as the ward on the front door: a rustic bit of sorcery in plain sight. In her previous neighbourhood, magic was kept to a minimum and obscured the way pipes and electrical cables are hidden behind the walls of modern homes.

Sadly, this reflects a growing attitude towards magic in present-day South Africa: it’s taboo and used only with reluctance. Many people, like Gia’s friend Fatima, are disgusted by it and avoid speaking about it. When Gia’s liberal, socially conscious teacher gives classes on magic and magicals, she discreetly covers the intercom so that she can’t be monitored. There’s a growing sense of dystopia because a political group known as The Purists is gaining influence, especially with the president’s son backing them. The Purists believe that magicals – including human ones – are either dangerous or useful only for hunting other magicals. They have a Red List for those who should be terminated on sight and a White List for those who are tolerated for their skills. The Purists are also proposing a Grey List of individual magicals with their personal details, allowing the government to keep track of them.

The might of the Purists is enforced by Special Branch, a military operation that uses werewolves to sniff out magic, does a lot of classified experimental work, and administers torturous tests for magical ability (those who pass get a Certificate of Purity, which has disturbing social implications). Special Branch uses the rhetoric of freedom and safety, promising to fight the “nightmares” so citizens can sleep easy but what they offer is not peace but security for those deemed eligible.

It’s not a good idea to get messed up with the Purists or Special Branch, but Gia and her family end up wandering dangerously close. Firstly, her parents are hired to design the wedding dress for Kavitha Pillay, fiancée of Luxolo Langa, the leader of the Purists. When Gia accompanies her mother to a meeting to discuss the design, Kavitha warns her that Luxolo is cruel and ruthless. The wedding is set o be a high-profile celebrity event, and if they screw up in any way, he’ll ruin them.

Then Gia unwittingly brings her family under the scrutiny when Special Branch comes to her school for a presentation on magical children, explaining that conditions like autism may be caused by magical abilities. Gia immediately sees an opportunity to help her beloved brother Nico, whose cognitive and social limitations are putting increasing strain on their family and on his ability to live a full life. Unfortuantely she doesn’t have the political savvy to realise that Special Branch are part of a frightening authoritarian power structure, so her good intentions end up endangering that which matters to her most: her family. Which is not to say that Gia’s character has to drag the weight of blame around; in a world with the Purists and Special Branch, things like this are bound to happen, and Gia doesn’t do anything unethical or even stupid. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her mistake and determines to fix it.

One thing that might have bothered me about this book is if the author had written Gia as a Chosen One or a special, magical snowflake labouring under the assumption that she’s just an ordinary girl. She is ordinary, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means she’s boring or weak.

On the contrary, Du Toit has made Gia a powerful protagonist without simply making her more empowered than everyone else (Chosen Ones and magical snowflakes can be great, but they can be a symptom of boring, lazy writing too). The story is driven by who Gia is as a person and the decisions she makes with the means at her disposal, and you can see the connections running through the novel like thread. She is, first and foremost, someone who cares about her family. She’s also a talented young woman who’s smart enough to appreciate moral complexity, and open-minded enough to embrace the reality of the world she lives in, rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar or the unnerving.

Obviously, this makes her an ideal narrator for a fantasy world, but it also makes for a nuanced family dynamic, particularly in the relationship between Gia and her (adoptive) mother Saraswati. They have the kind of tension that naturally arises between a 16-year-old and her parents, exacerbated by Saraswati’s strictness and a mysteriously blank past that Gia is only just beginning to question. But although Gia avoids speaking openly to her mother most of the time, you see the love between them when, for example, Gia lovingly brushes her mother’s long, ink-black hair, or takes Saraswati’s hand as she falls asleep and pictures the bonds that link them and her father and brother. As a family they’re caring, antagonistic, imperfect, contradictory and blessed in a way that feels real and keeps you invested in the story.

There’s also something ineffable about Crooks & Straight that I find appealing compared to most other South African novels I’ve read. Our literary scene is not a happy place where reading is fun and that’s because it doesn’t have enough novels like this. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but if I can resort to a very casual description I’d say it’s chilled. It’s not fraught with anxiety about tackling big issues and great tragedies. It’s not a drama so determined to be true to life that it’s just as dreary. It’s not trying to be so serious that it’s just depressing.

It’s obviously an explicitly political book, as I’ve spent half of this review explaining, but its primarily a book with compelling story, driven by a character you can relate to, set in a fantastic world you want to believe in. After months of struggling to find time to read or not being able to finish books I’d started because I was so tired from working all the time, Crooks & Straights finally gave me what I needed to get lost in a good book. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Wednesday: Finnegan’s Field by Angela Slatter

Wednesdays are short-story days. My recommendation this afternoon is ‘Finnegan’s Field’ by Angela Slatter, a dark fantasy published on Tor.com in January. I love posting about Tor’s stories simply because they each have their own cover art, and I like this quaintly eerie piece:

finnegansfield_storyfull2

The girl in the picture is Madrigal Barker, who somehow reappears, without explanation, three years after she disappeared from her tiny hometown. The town is in Australia but the population is of Irish heritage, and they know that “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again”. Except Madrigal. Everyone’s happy about it and quietly ignores the fact that she hasn’t changed at all in three years, but Madrigal’s mother, Anne, doesn’t think that the daughter who’s come back is the same one who was lost. And of course she’s dead right.

What follows is partly the horror story you’d expect, but it eschews tired convention by turning into more of an investigation as Anne tries to figure out what exactly it is that’s different about Madrigal and track down the person who took her. Even though she has, in fact, spent the past three years in the other world of fae mythology and there’s nothing Anne can do about that, Maddie only ended up there because a human led her to the doorway in the hill. And Anne is determined to find the culprit.

Besides being a quick, satisfying mystery, I also like Finnegan’s Field because it’s a touching story with relatable characters and some tough, haunting choices. Angela Slatter knows how to pack an emotional punch and I find her horror thoughtful and elegant.

Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.