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.

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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.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyTitle: The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Author: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translator: Lola M. Rogers
Published: first published in Finnish in 2006; English translation published in 2014; this edition published 20 January 2015
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, mystery
Rating: 7/10

The little Finnish town of Rabbit Back is famous for being the home of world-reknowned author Laura White, who penned the Creatureville series of children’s books. Laura White is also famous for having started the Rabbit Back Literature Society – a small group whose members she personally selected in childhood and trained to be writers. The Society was meant to have ten members, but as far as anyone knows it never had more than nine. Now, three decades later, all the members are all well-known authors themselves, but the search for a tenth member continues.

Ella Milana is shocked when she is offered this prestigious position. Having just returned to her home town, she works as a substitute teacher of Finnish Language and Literature at a local high school. She wrote her PhD thesis on the Creatureville books, but has only one piece of published fiction – a short story in Rabbit Back’s literary journal, inspired by her recent experience of finding out that she can’t have children. Apparently Laura White was so impressed by the story that she offered Ella the tenth membership, which includes a stipend to support her during the training.

However, the whole thing turns out to be decidedly odd and more than a little bit disappointing. At the party where Ella is supposed to meet Laura White, the author is only seen for a few brief moments before she falls and disappears in a whirl of snow. With no one around to give her the training she expected, Ella turns to her first love – research – to uncover the hidden truths of the Society. No one knows what Laura White’s methods were. Although the members were once close, they no longer seem to talk to each other. Ella quickly realises that there was once a tenth member whom no one outside the society has ever heard of. She also notices that there are books from the Rabbit Back Library whose words are changing (thereby altering their plots) and one of the society’s authors seems to know about it. So, while the town searches for Laura White’s body, Ella uses her new membership solve the mystery of the Rabbit Back Literature Society.

Ella seldom finds what she expects, and you, the reader, probably won’t either. Rabbit Back is quite a strange place thanks to the influence of Laura White and her books. There are also lots of otherwordly phenomena – lapses in memory, disturbing sightings, inexplicable animal behaviour, and of course the altered books in the library and the manner of Laura White’s disappearance. These things set the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy, but it’s not the kind of book where one or two knowledgable characters eventually reveal all. None of the characters know what’s really going on; the best they can do is try to speak truthfully about the things they’ve seen and experienced and it’s up to Ella – and the reader – to piece that information together.

This sort of thing can be frustrating, but I think Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen hits the right balance, revealing just enough to keep the reader satisfied, while keeping a few secrets that you continue thinking about the story once its over. For me, it also helps that the story is wrapped in folklore and mythology; that sort of thing always piques my interest. It seems that myth and folklore formed an important part of Rabbit Back’s heritage, and the Creatureville books tapped into that, ensuring that it remained a major part of the culture. If you were familiar with Finnish folklore you might get more out this novel; I often felt that the plot and characters drew from tales I, unfortunately, hadn’t heard of.

Overall though, I thought the novel wasn’t just about the various mysteries at play in the plot and but also about the mystery of literature itself, which can never be unravelled. It frequently portrays authors, fiction and the creative process as something alien and enigmatic. People desperately want to understand it, but understanding remains elusive.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the cult that’s grown up around Laura White. She’s like the god of Rabbit Back: people treat her with a sense of awe and reverence, and being chosen for the Society is considered the greatest of honours. The culture and businesses of the town have all been heavily influenced by Laura and her books, often to a bizarre degree. For example, residents can pay €80 for “mythological mapping”, which involves getting a detailed explanation of all the mythological creatures occupying your property. Early in the novel, Ella notices a news story about a farmer who found a potato shaped like one of Laura White’s characters. This is crazy enough, but it gets creepy after the author disappears: people start having nightmares about Laura White’s body climbing into their bedrooms and reading their Creatureville books aloud.

Notably, we never “see” the author herself in the narrative, except for the few moments before she disappears. We only hear about her through other people, so she remains remote, obscure. Mythical, you could say, especially since many of the town’s unexplained phenomena are related to her.

Some of the other writers have large roles in the narrative, but thanks to Laura White they all share an elevated status. They joke about being demigods, and on several occasions, non-members are referred to as “ordinary people”. Those “ordinary people”, of course, buy into this idea as well.

Jääskeläinen, I think, is taking a playful dig at the celebrity and mystique surrounding famous authors. The worship of Laura White becomes almost laughable, while the Society authors tend to have a sardonic attitude toward their own fame.

Of course, there’s also a darker side to this, not only because of the nightmares about Laura White, but because of what all this implies about her life, and what being in the Society meant for its members. It seems unlikely that Laura White had any friends; she was intensely loved and admired in a way that also left her completely alienated. No one seems particularly upset about her disappearance and possible death; this incredible mystery isn’t even a major subject in the novel and Ella actually gets tired of the whole thing because it has nothing to do with her research.

I agreed that her disappearance didn’t feel all that important; the past is far more interesting than the present, with all its murky secrets. Here Jääskeläinen explores some of the more questionable aspects of crafting literature, particulary the way authors use the lives of others to create fictional ones. To help them write, the Society has a secret practice known as The Game. Invented by Laura White, it has strict rules and regulations, and basically involves forcing other members to answer any question as truthfully as they possibly can, even if that means taking drugs to help them overcome any inihibitions. For Ella, this presents the perfect opportunity to gather material for her research paper, but for the rest of the Society it has been a way of mining human experience to find material for their books.

It’s a brilliant idea, and probably taught the authors far more about humanity than they would ever have learned otherwise. However, it also raises quite a few ethical issues and has had serious consequences for the members’ relationships with each other. How much can you take from other people? What happens when life and fiction start to intersect? The book plays around with that question throughout, and I’ll leave you to discover the many ways in which it does that. It’s certainly not a conventional mystery novel, but if you like a bit of fantasy, folklore, mythology and metafiction in the mix, then check it out 🙂

 

Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok

Sister SisterTitle: Sister-Sister
Author: Rachel Zadok
Published: 20 April 2013
Publisher: Kwela Books
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy
Rating: 8/10

Thuli and Sindi are twins who were once so close they climbed into each other’s dreams. They have a subtly magical connection that no one else sees. But now they wander, homeless and lost, following the highways of an alternative, slightly alien Joburg. Several years before, something came between them when an uncle they didn’t know existed came to visit with news of their dying grandmother. He set in motion a series of revelations and events that mangled the twins’ close relationship. The narrative alternates between the two timelines: Thuli narrates a surreal present-day story, while Sindi takes us back to the preceding years when everything went so disturbingly wrong.

Sister-Sister takes place in an unspecified near-future South Africa, after “the petrol car amnesty, when everyone was meant to change to electric” (17). Thuli and Sindi were born the day before the change, which the newspapers called “The Dawn of Fresh New Era” (17). The girls’ mother kept the newspaper clipping, and for a while the twins thought that they were the “new dawn” the article referred to.

The truth is harsher than the simple shattering of childhood beliefs. Thuli and Sindi might have been born into a changing world, but that world was always out of their reach. They grew up in a township and their mother would never have been able to afford a car. When they take public transport it’s in illegal “b-diesel junks” where they are packed in tightly with other passengers. The man who rents their tiny house out to them also makes a living converting the old cooking oil from a fried-chicken franchise into fuel.

It’s interesting to note that this often makes the novel feel as if it were in the postapocalyptic or dystopian genre, even thought it isn’t. The poverty of life in a township is in itself a kind of real-world dystopia. Then, when they’re homeless, the twins exist outside of mainstream society and encounter sinister underground communities.

In addition, their surroundings are always filled with the imagery of broken, dead or discarded things. When we first see Sindi, she’s been sleeping “in a wreck at the side of the road […] on the only seat that hasn’t been ripped out to find a new life as somebody’s couch” (13). Later, she hungrily devours dog food pellets that “crunch like chicken bones in her teeth” (23). Not only does the idea of eating dry dog food come as a sad shock, but the fact that Thuli’s reference for crunchiness is “chicken bones” is telling. Similarly, I find it unnerving when she says “I can almost taste the sweetness of her sweat on my tongue, a faint whiff like roadkilled dogs baking in the sun” (41). It says a lot about the twins’ lives.

Everywhere they go they find rubbish, wrecked cars, and dilapidated buildings; signs of poverty and neglect. Lost souls wander seemingly endless roads, and the threat of danger is always present. The story of a classmate who was raped and killed hovers over them. Even at home the twins risk getting beaten by their violent mother. When visiting the village of their birth to see their dying grandmother, they find it deserted because of the AIDS epidemic, and vultures feed on dead livestock. Grim as this all is, Rachel Zadok’s incredible writing gives the story an eerie, monstrous kind of beauty, which is often evoked by the folklore woven into the tale. It alternates between feeling fantastical and disturbingly real.

However, it’s worth nothing that this isn’t set in an overtly fantastical or science fictional world, or at least not the kind of world you normally associate with sff. The only major differences from real-world SA are the ban on electric cars, and the unbearably hot weather (presumably due to climate change). Mention is made of abandoned houses, although the novel doesn’t really get into the reasons for this. Otherwise, it’s a lot like South Africa today, in terms of both poverty and affluence. The twins watch people driving to work. They gaze through steel bars at the safe, gated communities where they will never live. There are “crazies” wandering the highways on foot, and a friend who read the book with me says she instantly recognised them as a standard feature of Joburg’s freeways.

The plot fits perfectly with this setting. Rather than being able to grow and blossom, the young twins are caught up in a dire story over which they have little control. Often, when they’re able to make decisions, they’re bad or hopeless decisions. When homeless, the focus is on basic survival. In the earlier narrtive, they become the victims of family drama and poisonous traditional or religious beliefs. In an interview with the Mail and Guardian, Zadok said that her “fascination with belief systems and how they affect cultures and the individual” was what most likely inspired Sister-Sister, and indeed issues of belief come up again and again.

The girls’ mother left her village partly because of the stigma associated with twins, who are believed to be bad luck. When they return, the village’s desolation (caused by HIV/AIDS) is blamed on the twins. Not that they bear the burden equally – because Sindi has a stutter and seldom speaks to anyone except Thuli, she is often frowned upon while her friendly sister is favoured. This in turn affects Sindi’s beliefs about herself and her sister in ways that divide them and drive the plot forward. Belief in this context is never abstract: it is manifested in vivid, prophetic dreams, in the ways the sisters connect with each other or perceive their world, and in the actions the characters choose to take.

I’m not going to say much more about the plot because it’s better to watch it unfold. That said, it can be a difficult novel to get into. Thuli’s sections of narrative are surreal because dream and memory aren’t always easily distinguished from reality. The world itself might also take some getting used to. Because I’m the kind of pendantic reader who stalls or flips back and forth between the pages if I don’t know exactly what’s going on, it took me about a week to get through Part One, which is only fifty-five pages long. But if you find it similarly difficult, just hang in there. Sindi’s narrative is more straightfoward and I flew through Part Two in less than a day. It’s also worth keeping in mind that when Thuli starts the story, she is hiding something important from herself and the reader. She tells us, sadly, that “remembering’s hard. The world’s an ugly place and memories aren’t something to unwrap like birthday presents” (63).

It makes sense, then, that the novel is slow to reveal its secrets, even the ones you might have already guessed at. Not that figuring them out on your own spoils the story, because it’s just like Thuli says – the world is ugly and these memories aren’t a delight to uncover. Even though I soon figured out the gist of what happened to the twins, that knowledge never lessened the impact of events. I knew what was coming, but I was still apprehensive about seeing it happen.

Admittedly, if I had known exactly what this story was about, I might not have read it. Child abuse, poverty, AIDS, homelessness – the novel features all of these things and I normally shy away from such harrowing topics unless I’ve braced myself to deal with them. However, Zadok handles the story with such grace and creativity that the novel can be a wonderful read without ever detracting from the seriousness of its subject matter.

I also think that the speculative aspects were crucial, not only to my enjoyment but to the novel as a whole. By setting the story in an alternative/future South Africa that seems postapocalyptic or dystopian but isn’t, Zadok evokes the otherworldly reality of poverty and homelessness. Similarly, the story’s fantastical elements give it a dreamy quality that often serve to detach Thuli and Sindi from their world, as if they’re moving within an interstitial space where they can never get a grip on reality or be fully in control.  The fantastical also just makes the story incredibly beautiful and haunting. Sister-Sister is the kind of book that gets me excited about South African sff not only because it was a good read but because it explores the ways in which writers can use fantasy to tell South African stories.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonTitle: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 10 April 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

An alien ship crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos. The polluted waters become pure and salty-sweet, and teem with fantastical marine and alien life. Just before the event, three people were wandering towards each other on Bar Beach – Adaora (a marine biologist), Agu (a soldier), and Anthony (a famous rapper). Then the sea itself rears up to swallow them for a meeting with the aliens that changes their lives forever.

When they awake on shore a shape-shifting alien is with them, in the form of a woman who Adaora names Ayodele. They take her back to Adaora’s home laboratory to conduct a few simple tests and decide what to do, but the situation quickly spirals out of their control.

Adaora, Agu and Anthony want to protect Ayodele, so they her help send out peaceful messages to Lagos and the world. Adaora’s maid Philo tells her boyfriend Moziz about the alien, and he and his friends decide to kidnap Ayodele and make her print money for them, assuming that if the technologically advanced aliens can shape-shift, they can create money out of thin air. Moziz’ friend Jacobs is in on the money-making plan but also has hopes for living openly as a transvestite, given that an LGBT student organisation is trying to use the shape-shifting aliens in a campaign for inclusivity. When Adaora’s newly religious husband Chris finds out, he tells his priest, Father Oke, who tries to make the aliens part of his congregation. Many people try to flee the city, where some are reacting to the alien presence with riots, looting and violence. The aliens in turn react to humanity with curiosity and kindness, but also devastating brutality.

It’s a story in which Lagos itself is part of the narrative. Adaora suggests that the aliens chose the city because “If they’d landed in New York, Tokyo or London, the governments of these places would have quickly swooped in to hide, isolate and study the aliens. Here in Lagos, there was no such order.” It’s a city of contradictions. With all its walls and gates, Chris says, “It’s secure but there is no security.” Adaora describes it as a city where everyone wants to leave but no one ever goes; people want to return as soon as they step out. The city is “riddled with corruption” but she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The writing is flavoured with Nigerian culture – there are lots of local words and expressions, and some of the characters speak in pidgin English, which takes some getting used to. There is a glossary at the back of the book, but I didn’t find this until I’d finished, and it could be highly impractical for eBook readers who want to flip back and forth.

Culture, social circumstances, religion and folklore also play a major role. Adaora is having serious personal problems with her husband Chris, who has become convinced that Adaora is not merely a marine biologist but a marine witch (the worst kind of witch) and that the home laboratory he built for her is a witch’s den. It was when he turned to physical violence that Adaora stormed out and went to Bar Beach where the ocean engulfed her.

Chris isn’t the only one thinking of witches though; many Lagosians see the aliens from the perspective of traditional beliefs, of which witches and shape-shifters are a part. Adaora mentions that she wishes her grandmother could have seen the aliens, because she believed in shape-shifters. Of course not everyone is optimistic – lots of people think the aliens are evil and a threat to deeply ingrained beliefs. When more of the aliens emerge and take human form, the violence escalates. It’s also influenced by poverty and hardship. As Agu notes, people are using it as an opportunity to take out their frustrations.

Creatures from myth and folklore also appear. I thought they were the aliens in other forms, but they’re the creatures themselves. One of my favourite scenes is when a gravelly monster – the personification of a dangerous road – rises up and faces an alien who has taken the form of a Nigerian soap opera celebrity.

Thus science fiction and fantasy become entwined to the point that you can’t fit this book neatly in either genre. Aliens are the stuff of sf and Ayodele describes her race as being technology, but since we have so little understanding of how they do things that their abilities feel like magic. Like the way they alter the marine life in the ocean by giving the creatures what they desire. A swordfish in the opening chapter becomes a big, badass monster (this chapter is the story “Moom!” in Okorafor’s collection Kabu Kabu). The aliens hack into human technology so that crystal clear video broadcasts appear appear on TVs, computers and phones, even if it goes beyond the devices’ capabilities. It’s sci fi that feels like fantasy. Adaora talks about taking refuge in science, but she, Agu and Anthony have all had powerful, fantastical abilities since childhood, none of which she can explain in scientific terms.

Not that Adaora has the luxury of studying the aliens or her abilities; there’s too much going on. For the reader though, there isn’t actually much of a plot. The As – Adaora, Agu and Anthony – have vague goals, which include getting the sickly Nigerian president to negotiate with the aliens, but their plans are frequently thwarted, so progress is slow. In addition the story frequently hops to other POVs, many of which do not contribute to the main plot, although they add texture and colour to the bigger picture.

And there are loads of POV characters – the three As, Adaora’s husband Chris, their kids Kola and Fred, Adaora’s maid Philo, Philo’s boyfriend Moziz, his friend Jacobs, Jacobs’s prostitute sister Fisayo, a mute child, Father Oke. And those are just the recurring characters. We also hear from a 419 scammer, a bat, and a seven-legged spider.

It’s a riot of a story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Anthony mentions, Lagos rhymes with chaos, and the city is chaotic even on an average day. The arrival of the aliens sends it into overdrive, and the novel gives us a large, detailed sketch of what that looks like. You get the sense that this is a massive, wild story that can’t be easily contained, so Okorafor chose to depict it as such rather than going for a more traditionally streamlined narrative. And she handles it pretty well – it’s fairly easy to keep track of everything.

But, admittedly, I struggled to get invested in the story. I’d start to engage with a particular character’s struggles, only to be whisked off to see through other POVs. The three As and Ayodele get the most page-time, but I found them to be the least interesting characters. In all the chaos, I was never sure what would happen and or what I wanted to happen; I just sat back and watched it unfold. It’s all open-ended, and the novel closes without any major resolutions. It’s more like the beginning of what will be a long, epochal story, but Okorafor didn’t intend to write a sequel. What’s also frustrating is that we never see the aliens in their “true” forms, never learn what happens when they speak to the humans underwater, and only have a vague idea of what they want. It’s a contact story focused almost entirely on the human reaction in Lagos.

I wouldn’t say this is badly written in the way that some novels with too many characters and POVs are. It’s a kind of planned chaos, rather than a story gone amorphously out of control, and I have no criticisms of Okorafor’s writing. So I can appreciate what she did with novel, even if I didn’t get as wrapped up in it as I would have liked to. Time will tell if it’s made enough of an impression on me that I’ll start to admire it more, or if it’s going to fade from memory. But hey, that gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover drove me to buy the book in print, so I’ll probably read it again one day.

The Color Master by Aimee Bender

The Color MasterTitle: The Color Master
Author:
 Aimee Bender
Published:
 
13 August 2013
Publisher: 
Doubleday
Genre:
 
short stories, fantasy, magical realism
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
8/10

Aimee Bender is a master of nuance. Her writing has a subtlety that feels smooth and delicate most of the time, and then stops you like a razor to your pulse. I savour her details like a perfect sip of wine or a bite from a deliciously simple and elegant dish.

Her tales saunter on the edges of fantasy and magical realism, or explore real-quirks in ways that give them a mythical quality. Reading them feels just a little bit otherworldly, like something both pleasurable and unnerving that you can’t quite describe. According to the blurb, she is “[b]eloved by readers and critics alike” and I can see how she finds favour with both groups. Her writing is beautiful and so easy to read. Her imagery is enchanting but not simplistic. You look deeper into every story, or just enjoy their dreamy, elusive qualities. Some stories have more or less traditional narratives, while others are more like fictional musings on an idea or character.

“Appleless” is a metaphorical story set in an apple orchard where everyone indulges in the fruit except for one girl who will not eat them. I had to take a minute to think about this one, and came to the conclusion that it’s a story about temptation and decadence. If you take the apples as a symbol or forbidden fruit or lust, then story depicts a society of thoughtless hedonists, and shows what they do to the one individual who has no interest in their excess.

“The Red Ribbon” is a slightly disturbing story of marital discord. I love the ways in which Bender intimates the wife’s unhappiness:

“Time for bed, honey,” she said cheerily, which was code for Don’t touch me.

 

She certainly liked the image of herself as the benevolent wife with arms full of flowers, but if she bought the flowers she would spend part of the ride home feeling so righteous and pleased that she had bought flowers; what a good wife she was; wasn’t he a lucky man; until, by the time she arrived home with the flowers, she’d be angry he hadn’t bought her flowers.

The wife is bored and unemployed. The details of the story keep suggesting that she’s unhappy because she doesn’t make any money but lives off her husband’s, and that she’s somehow wandered into this situation without meaning to. She takes on a more active role when she revitalizes their sex life by getting her husband to pay her for sex. He enjoys the game for a while but once he tires of it she finds she no longer enjoys it without being paid. The red ribbon in the title refers to a fairytale about a wife who always wears a red ribbon around her neck. When her husband removes it one night, her head falls off.

In “The Devourings” Bender depicts another problematic marriage, this time between a large, ugly woman and an ogre who makes her feel delicate and feminine in comparison. They’re happy together, until he accidentally eats their children. This story went on for a bit too long, I thought, but I liked the strange dynamic between the human and the ogre.

“Faces” was a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award finalist. The award is “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”. I suppose “Faces” falls into the first category; it’s a bit hard to define, but I like it a lot anyway. It’s about a belligerent boy who can’t recognise faces or facial expressions. He can’t tell his mother about the children he hangs out with at school; he doesn’t even know their names. His mother appears to him as “big red lips”, his father as mussed hair. He can’t distinguish young from old or alive from dead.  I’m not sure if this bothers him, but when he’s questioned about it his reaction is angry and dismissive:

Wasn’t there enough complication in the world already without having to take in the overload of details and universes in every single person’s fucking face?

The weird thing is that he kind of has a point, but at the same time his uncaring attitude is so creepy.

I can see why the collection was named after the story “The Color Master” as it’s undoubtedly one of the best, most enjoyable stories. It’s a fairytale about a group of tailors and shoemakers who specialise in colour. The best of them is the Color Master, but she has grown very old and only comes in for the most difficult requests, like when they have to make a pair of shoes the colour of rock, or a bag the colour of a blooming rose.

They do far more than simply dye cloth; their skills lie in incorporating all the shades and depth of the real thing so that the rock shoes, for example, are indistinguishable from the rocks they imitate and evoke the sense of craggy mountains. The artisans collect colour wherever they find it (“an amazingly rich burgundy off in the driest part of the forest, on a series of leaves […] a new blue in a desiccated pansy, and another in the feathers of a dead bird”), their methods include meditation on colour, texture and being, and their services are so expensive that most of their clients are royalty. The main plot of the story when the king asks them to make a dress the colour of the moon for his daughter. It seems an impossible task, especially since the Color Master is dying. The story follows the narrator, who is not especially talented but has to guide the team through the creative process, putting not only colour but emotion into their work.

I’d already read “Americca” in the anthology Fantastic Women, but it’s a great story so I happily re-read it. It’s about an American family who keep finding strange objects that appear in their home. Some are duplicates of what they already have, some are things they’d never seen before, sometimes things they’d never buy. Besides unnerving them, every object seems to say something about the imperfections of their lives.

There are several plotless character-driven stories most of which weren’t particularly memorable, but were soothing to read. One that really stood out for me however (partly because it was discomforting rather than soothing), was “Lemonade”, about Louanne, an unpopular teenage girl who goes to the mall with a popular ‘friend’ Sylvia who only used her to get a ride. Louanne’s stream-of-consciousness narration is part of what makes this such a good story – it’s intensely self-absorbed, deeply insecure and ridiculously naive, as befits a teenager like her. She overthinks everything, tries way too hard, and  gets extremely worried about minor things that no one else notices, like trying to be nice by smiling at people:

And then I walked by a pretty black lady in pink high heels and I forgot to smile at her which means she might’ve thought that I didn’t smile at her because I am racist because, in case she happened to notice, I smile at everyone.

Presumably no one notices that she smiles at everyone and if they did they’d probably think she was insane. Although, being a teenager is a kind of insanity 🙂 The story has a sad side to it in the casual cruelty with which Louanne’s peers treat her, most notably when Sylvia meets up with her boyfriend and another girl, and Louanne is asked to go away:

“Will you leave us alone for half an hour Louanne? […] I need to talk to Sylvia and Jack about something important. I’ll tell you another time, I just have to talk to them alone right now.”

It’s the kind of situation that anyone who was a bit of an outcast at high school will recognise, and that’s what makes it a bit discomfiting to read. I love the way Bender does a psychological close-up of a specific experience though, and it’s the kind of thing that comes up in many of her stories. Another one I wanted to mention was “Wordkeeper” about the effect of technology and social media on our minds and relationships. In the story, people can no longer remember common words because they’re so used to letting phones and computers do their thinking and remembering for them. The narrator relates his deteriorating relationship with a friend and neighbour who is growing increasingly frustrated with people’s dependancy on technology. In one scene, he chooses his email over sex:

She ate the peanuts. She was flushed from the wine. She wanted to take off her clothes, I could feel it, the same way she was undressing peanuts, and I felt it as cruel then, how I didn’t want to do anything with her. Maybe cruel to both of us. But the truth is, I just felt like I had e-mail to check. I could masturbate faster. It was easier, in terms of fallout. Who wants to be in an argument with your neighbor?

Overall, this is a beautiful collection. If you like short stories, especially the kind of stories you find at the intersection between literary fiction and fantasy, then I think you’d love this. Bender’s lovely writing is really something worth indulging in.