Sycamore Row: It’s As Good As I Wanted It To Be

Cover art for Sycamore Row

Cover art for Sycamore Row

Three years after his success in the infamous Hailey trial, Jake Brigance’s clientele are nearly non-existent. He’s still recuperating from the Klan attacks on his now destroyed home, and he’s barely scraping by financially. Although the Clanton community respects Jake for the stand he took for Carl-Lee, the town is still divided by deep-seated racism.
Dying of lung cancer, wealthy lumberyard magnate Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a tree on Sycamore Row. The day after Hubbard’s suicide, Jake receives a handwritten letter from the deceased man. The letter contains very specific instructions for Jake: Hubbard has written a new will, one that abolishes all of his previous wills, and he wants Jake to defend it in court.

Previously, Seth Hubbard’s substantial estate had been left to his two greedy children. The new holographic will, however, stipulates that 90% of his fortune goes to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang.

Eager for the work, Jake takes on the responsibility of defending the will. Unsurprisingly, the former beneficiaries of the Hubbard estate contest the new stipulations, arguing that Lettie exerted undue influence over their dying father. Lettie herself is less happy about her potential inheritance than she is confused about why she’s been chosen as its heir.
Did Seth have a reason to leave his money to his housekeeper? Or did he do it just to antagonize the children who abandoned him in his illness? Did his children deserve to be publicly shamed by the insinuation that they are nothing but selfish money-hounds? Where is the long-lost brother to whom Seth has left five percent of his estate? And why did he disappear in the first place?
With an unprecedented fortune on the line, Clanton is once again catapulted into a racial conflict. The trial looms closer, and the significance of Seth Hubbard’s decision becomes apparent – but unless Jake and his legal team can uncover his reasoning, their case seems doomed.

***

Sycamore Row is the sequel to A Time to Kill, which is one of my very favourite novels, but I didn’t rush out and buy Sycamore Row when it was released. The premise didn’t exactly grab me. ATTK is about a murder trial – how could a will contest possibly be as exciting?

Well, it’s not. There’s not as much on the line as there was in the Hailey case of ATTK, and somehow, it doesn’t matter as much. But I enjoyed Sycamore Row as much as ATTK, although for different reasons.
While A Time to Kill is dark and suspenseful, Sycamore Row is more focused on characterization. For fans of ATTK, it’s interesting to see how Jake and his family have coped with the aftermath of the Hailey trial. Because the plot of A Time to Kill is so absorbing, it’s easy to forget how great Grisham’s characterization can be. Rufus Buckley, made famous by Kevin Spacey in the ATTK film (in something of a pre-Underwood performance, if you ask me), shows up again in a rather different capacity than when we last saw him. Lucien Wilbanks, still a drunk, is determined to re-sit the bar exam and practice law again, inspired by the intrigue of the Carl-Lee Hailey case. And Harry Rex, vile as ever, is still the greatest legal mind in the area.

Rufus Buckley, you evil SOB.

Rufus Buckley, you evil SOB.

I particularly liked Portia, Lettie Lang’s daughter, who returns to Clanton from deployment in the army. Determined to help her mother win the money that could change her life, Portia takes a position on Jake’s team as a paralegal. Polished, articulate and a formidable academic, Portia is something of an outcast in her family. But her dedication to her mother and her determination to ensure a fair verdict is both moving and inspiring. Even better is her relationship with Jake – Portia has no qualms about giving her boss her honest opinion, even to the point of argument, but Jake respects her all the more for it. Unlike in ATTK, though, where Jake and Roark came close to having an affair, Jake and Portia’s relationship is wholly platonic, and I loved seeing it unfold.

A sequel twenty-five years in the making, Sycamore Row is a worthy successor to Grisham’s wonderful breakout novel. Although the plot doesn’t move as quickly as ATTK, Sycamore Row does still have some twists up its sleeve. It also takes an insightful look at the way that wealth and its transfer can affect people, both as individuals and a community at large. Regular readers and my real-life friends will know that I never really recuperated from the season finale of True Detective. Something about that show…I can’t even really explain it. It’s like a part of me got stuck in the South with Rust and Woody, searching for the King in Yellow. Ever since the end of TD, I’ve been drawn to books set in the South. So I enjoyed Sycamore Row for the chance to return to the South, to the troubled town of Clanton, amongst characters I was happy to see again. Recommended!

Gratuitous Jake Brigance, because he's lovely

Gratuitous Jake Brigance, because he’s lovely

The Three: A Horror Novel for Skeptics

Cover art for The Three

Cover art for The Three

On Black Friday, 2011, four planes went down at exactly the same time, in four separate corners of the globe. Only three children survive – in Japan, Hiro; in America, Bobby; and in the UK, Jess, whose twin sister and parents perished.
  With no explanation as to why the planes crashed, the survival of the children – dubbed ‘The Three’ by the ravenous press – is nothing short of a miracle.
  Bereft of their parents, The Three are placed into the custody of their next-of-kin. While their new guardians are overjoyed to have them alive, each becomes concerned, and then disturbed, by the children’s increasingly bizarre behaviour.

For me, horror novels present the ultimate obstacle in the suspension of disbelief. In order to accept that Carrie is going to rain fire on her bullies, we first must accept that she has telekinetic powers. Somehow, I find it harder to accept this version of reality than the one i in which a Ministry of Magic hides an entire population among everyday British citizens. Maybe that’s because horror, as a genre, doesn’t need to establish an entirely new world from the ground up in order to set the stage for its conflict.

The Three is a horror novel for skeptics. For one thing, it doesn’t take a great leap of faith to imagine the terror that would arise from four planes going down at the same time in different parts of the world. With this narrative device, Lotz draws upon an all-too-familiar fear that the world as we know it is about to change. As I didn’t really have a problem believing that planes could be the modern harbinger of “end times”, the novel sucked me in from the get-go.

South African author Sarah Lotz

South African author Sarah Lotz

All over the globe, people are reacting to the events of Black Friday. In America, Pastor Len believes that The Three are the first of the four horsemen, and that their arrival is a sign that Judgment Day is close at hand. Evangelism borders on mass hysteria as the Bible Belt latches on to Pastor Len’s message. In Japan, a cult forms around Hiro, the six-year-old survivor of the plane that went down in Osaka. Hiro’s eighteen-year-old cousin, Chiyoko, whose family is bound up in the creation of “surrabot” androids, is now his primary carer. Chiyoko’s online conversations, detailing how she feels about the events of Black Thursday and Hiro himself, form the basis of Hiro’s story. This was my favourite subplot of the novel. In England, Paul struggles to care for his niece Jess as her behavior becomes increasingly disturbing.

The Three is written in an epistolary format – that is, as a series of documents and clippings. It’s also a book within a book, given that the majority of the novel is taken up with excerpts from investigative journalist Elspeth’s narrative history of Black Thursday and its aftermath. This format, which readers might recognize from the recent horror hit World War Z, tends to officiate a horror story in a way that traditional prose cannot. For the skeptical reader, it can be tough to accept not only the apparatus of horror, but also a single, or limited, perspective of the event. The story of The Three is more believable because of the number of people telling it, their various relationships to the incident and the children themselves, and their differing characters. Each of the characters brings a different set of biases, personalities traits and circumstances to the Black Thursday tragedy, and through their collective perspectives, we see an ominous truth being shaped.

US cover art for The Three

US cover art for The Three

The narrative emerges piece by piece from all over the world. It’s a slow burn, and at first, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The lack of specificity lends an unshakeable sense of eeriness to the novel – the reader is constantly questioning the nature of Black Friday and The Three, because something simply doesn’t feel right.

The uneasy feeling of foreboding culminates in an epilogue that can only be described as downright scary. Elspeth, the author of the “book within a book”, decides to revisit the story of The Three, and travels to the infamous suicide forest in Japan. What she finds there will likely have you sleeping with the light on for a few nights after you finish the book.

Why would they need a reason? Why do we hunt when we have enough to eat? Why do we kill each other over trifles? What makes you think they needed any more motivation other than to simply see what might happen?

The Three is a horror novel for people who think they don’t like horror novels. Lotz is a master of suspense, and her characterization is far better than I’ve come to expect from the horror genre. With the international scope of World War Z and the intensely personal nature of Dictaphone transcripts, internet conversations and journal entries, The Three leaves no stone unturned. If you’re in the mood for something scary, this novel is worth your time.

Want a copy? Brisbanites, head to Pulp Fiction’s new store on Adelaide Street! Visit their Facebook page here. Wherever you may be, be sure to support your independent booksellers!

Are you a fan of horror? Check out these reviews, too!
M. R. Carey’s THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
Jeff Vandermeer’s ANNIHILATION
a
nd Mira Grant’s PARASITE

The 5 Things I Want You To Know about Daughter of Smoke and Bone

This is the best cover available for the book.

This is the best cover available for the book.

I started this book once before, and only made it about fifty pages in. For some reason, it just didn’t strike me as anything special. The protagonist was odd, and I couldn’t relate to her.  I found the setting alienating, and couldn’t get a clear picture of the “otherworldly” element. In all honesty, I just didn’t get it, and I didn’t believe the hype (haa). Next!

When I attempted Daughter of Smoke and Bone for a second time, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness I’d tried again. If I hadn’t, I would never have had the opportunity to immerse myself in one of the most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve ever come across.

Karou is an art student at a specialist college in Prague. She has a reputation for oddness: her blue hair seems to grow out of her head that way, and her drawings of mythological characters seem to have a life of their own. Strange things seem to happen around Karou, but when her friends ask her about it, she simply deflects their questions with a wry smile and a vague response.

Unlike her best friend Zuzanna, Karou has no family in Prague. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have family anywhere on Earth. Nobody seems to know how she ended up in a tiny artist’s college in Prague, or even why she can speak fluent Czech. Karou, it seems, is a mystery.

You can't read this book and not want to go to this city.

You can’t read this book and not want to go to this city.

Unbeknownst to her classmates, Karou has access to numerous portals to another realm. When she steps through one of these scattered doorways, Karou comes face to face with chimaera – hybrid beasts that wouldn’t be out of place in Pan’s Labyrinth. A gorgon-esque woman with the body of a snake and the torso of a human and a huge beast with the head of a ram and the legs of a lion greet her when she crosses the threshold from the human realm into Elsewhere – these are Issa and Brimstone, Karou’s surrogate parents.
Although her chimaera family is even more caring than the average human parents, they have never truly revealed to Karou how she came to be in their care. Brimstone, a merchant who specializes in the trade of teeth, sends Karou all over the globe in search of his unusual produce. Despite this, however, she has no idea what he actually uses the teeth for. With no context for her life, and an endless stream of questions about her very existence, Karou lives with a perpetual feeing of emptiness.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot of the novel. Not really knowing much about the book meant that it had every capacity to shock and surprise me – which it did, in spades. Instead, I’m going to tell you the top five things I want you to know about Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

1. It is not – repeat, NOT – another YA paranormal romance. While there is a romantic element, it quickly becomes apparent that the focal relationship is only a catalyst for a much more interesting concept: war. And once the war arrives, the romance (quite rightfully) dissipates.

2. While we’re talking about things that this book is not, let me just say that it is not another urban fantasy. In fact, by the time you get to the second book, you’ve almost entirely left the human world, so there’s nothing urban about it. I think it would therefore be fair to class Days of Blood and Starlight as hard fantasy. And, you’ll be pleased to hear, there’s not a vampire in sight.

Lovely fan art - artist unknown (please comment if you know who made this so I can credit them)

Lovely fan art – artist unknown (please comment if you know who made this so I can credit them)

3. In a quietly unassuming way, all of the female characters in the novel are heroic. Karou herself is a beacon of strength, particularly in the face of borderline depression, but even the peripheral women are awesome. Zuzanna, Karou’s best friend, is brilliantly drawn and aggressively fierce, and it’s worth reading this book for her character alone.

Side note: Zuzanna and her boyfriend Mike bring a much-needed light-heartedness to the story, as well as a certain romantic element which is not dependent on a “will they or won’t they” dynamic. Mik and Zuzanna have their own mini-novella, Night of Cake and Puppets, which is adorable and funny, just like they are.

4. I don’t really believe that this is a YA novel. The plot is more complex than most other YA books I’ve read, and the themes and concepts it addresses feel more like adult fiction. While I unashamedly adore YA fiction, I do feel as though Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a more fulfilling read because of its maturity.

Ugh. Just, ugh. This is such a poor representation of the book.

Ugh. Just, ugh. This is such a poor representation of the book.

5.  Please, please don’t judge this brilliant book on this very poor cover art. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is so much more than this silly cover. It’s not about masquerades and balls (although there are some in there) and boys and pretty magic. It’s about war, identity, cultural heritage and friendship. It is a dark, moody novel, and it deserves so much more than this vapid design that gives it no edge over all the cut-copy paranormal YA on the shelves currently.

 

So there you have it. I hope I’ve convinced you to read it, because you really should.

 

Two post-scripts:
1. Apologies for the lack of reviews of late – I’ve recently begun studying a Master of Information and Library Management, and I’m still getting the hang of balancing work, study, blogging and reading!

2. Pulp Fiction is MOVING. If you’re in Brisbane, go check out their 20% off sale to grab a bargain before they move to their new premises (which are very close by – details will be posted soon on their Facebook).

In case you missed it, there's a sale on.

In case you missed it, there’s a sale on.

Charlaine Harris’s MIDNIGHT CROSSROAD: An Advance Review

midnight-crossroad_612x924The first in a new trilogy, Midnight Crossing is the first book Charlaine Harris will publish after the conclusion of the Southern Vampire Mysteries (sometimes known as the Sookie Stackhouse series, or more recently, the True Blood books). As an author, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to publish a new book after the completion of your best-known series. It must be even more daunting to face a fandom that was, by and large, unhappy with the way you ended that series. Such is the dilemma Charlaine Harris faces, with the release of Midnight Crossroad.
I was lucky enough to receive a highly anticipated ARC of Midnight Crossroad from Pulp Fiction Booksellers. I loved this book, and I am interested to see how fans of the Sookie Stackhouse series are going to respond to Harris’ new direction.

Midnight is a middle-of-the-road town in Texas, consisting of a diner, a church, a New-Age store, a gas station, a nail salon-and-antique store, and a pawnshop. The town is populated almost entirely by the proprietors of those businesses, and the very occasional passer-by.
Manfred, a sometime genuine and oftentimes fraudulent psychic, moves to Midnight in the hope of starting afresh. He quickly becomes accustomed to the insular community, and learns that the Midnighters don’t take kindly to personal questions. Secrets aside, however, the Midnight residents happily take Manfred into their fold, and he finds himself establishing a home in the unusual town.

When one of his neighbors suggests a “welcome to Midnight” picnic in Manfred’s honor, the whole town treks out to a picturesque mountain spot. The social occasion is brought to a screeching halt when one of Midnight’s citizens stumbles upon a dead body – unmistakably that of Aubrey Hamilton, former girlfriend of the pawnshop owner, Bobo.

The confirmation that Aubrey was murdered, and not just a runaway, throws Midnight society into disarray. Knowing that the killer had to have been one of their own, the Midnighters become suspicious and frightened.

The usually conservative members of the community find themselves having to disclose more and more about their pasts and their unusual abilities in order to avoid being targeted as Aubrey’s murderer. Before long, Midnight is embroiled in a conspiracy involving bikers, white supremacists and a mysterious legend that may or may not have a basis in reality.

deadtotheworldMidnight Crossroad is most definitely not the SVM. For one thing, it’s far more serious than the Sookie Stackhouse books. In the SVM series, Sookie’s sassy narration could lighten even the gravest predicaments (pun intended – sorry…). In Midnight Crossroad, Harris employs a third-person omniscient narrator, with multiple points of view – quite a change from her usual MO. Instead of forming a comfortable relationship with a single, familiar narrator as we did with Sookie, readers will instead find themselves immersed in the community of Midnight. It’s quite an eerie effect, especially as we begin to unravel the truth of Aubrey’s murder.
While the Sookie Stackhouse books were arguably focused on romance, Midnight only gives it a periphery acknowledgement. Manfred finds himself drawn to one of Midnight’s most mysterious citizens, and Fiji, the town witch, is trying to suppress her feelings for Bobo, but it’s only a small part of a much more interesting narrative.
Most fascinating to me, however, was the fact that any reference to the supernatural was extremely casual. Fiji is a witch, but the full extent of her abilities is left largely unexplored. Manfred comes from a family of genuine psychic ability, but we’re not really given any insight into whether he’s just carrying on the tradition, or if he’s got a true gift. Lemuel is a vampire, but he’s not one of Bill or Eric’s brethren. He seems to subsist on energy, rather than blood – although he did mention that “the synthetic stuff” just doesn’t cut it for him, a reference Sookie’s fans will appreciate.
I knew very little about Midnight Crossroad when I started it, but I did expect that it would be another addition to Harris’ canon of supernatural or paranormal works. It’s actually quite difficult to define, now that I’ve finished it, because the references to the supernatural elements of the town are so minimal that it could almost be classed as magical realism. Overall, it gives the impression that there is much more to the town of Midnight than this first book has divulged.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

I loved Midnight Crossroads. I missed my bus stop on not one, but two separate bus trips because I was so engrossed in it. With a few small alterations, this book could have been “twee” or overly kitschy, but Harris confidently walks the line between intriguing darkness and heartening community. Midnight Crossroads was an excellent follow-up to True Detective, as it carried on the Southern Gothic theme, but also served as a reintroduction to genre fiction (I had been suffering a bit of genre burnout beforehand). I recommend it not only to Sookie’s fans, but to anyone who is fed up with traditional urban fantasy. If you aren’t quite ready to let go of the eerie South yet, pick up your copy of Midnight Crossroad on release day.

Midnight Crossroad is released in America on May 1, and in Australia on May 6. Please order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers – you can add them on Facebook here.

I received a reviewer’s proof copy of Midnight Crossroads in exchange for providing my honest feedback to Pulp Fiction Booksellers. The copy I read was not the final edit, and may be subject to publisher’s editing prior to its publication. Thanks again Beau, Iain and Ron for providing me with this excellent book.

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James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA: to Soothe post-True Detective Blues.

As the end of True Detective drew near, I began to panic. I had become addicted to the madness, the obsession and the convoluted relationship between Marty and Rust, and I didn’t know where I’d get my fix when the penultimate eighth episode was done and dusted. True Detective was unlike anything I’d ever seen or read, so I had no idea where to start looking for something similar. Fortunately, Pulp Fiction came to the rescue, and recommended that I start out with James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA.

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I miss you, Rust.

As you may be aware, The Black Dahlia refers to an actual, exceptionally gruesome murder. Elizabeth “Betty” Short, a star-struck would-be actress, was found brutally murdered in Los Angeles in January of 1947. Her murder remains one of the oldest unsolved homicide cases in Los Angeles’ history, and has long been a subject of fascination for scholars and entertainers alike. Ellroy’s version of The Black Dahlia’s tale is fictionalized by necessity, but remains true to the facts as much as possible.

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Betty Short – famous in death, if not in life.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is working his way through the ranks of the LAPD when he is presented with a major PR opportunity. An amateur boxer with a reputation for his cool-headedness in the ring, Bucky is asked to go up against Lee “Mr Fire” Blanchard, a colleague in the Warrants division, to drum up public support for the police department. Despite being lighter than Blanchard, Bucky finds that competing in the fight might open up doors that would otherwise remain closed to him – so he accepts.
When the fight between the now-infamous “Mr Fire and Mr Ice” drums up enough support for the police to be approved for an 8% pay rise, Bucky finds himself faced with more opportunity than he knows what to do with. He takes a promotion and a partnership with his rival, Lee Blanchard, in the Warrants division. As they develop a partnership, Blanchard and Bleichert find that their contradictory natures are, in fact, complementary, and the pair find professional and personal success together. On a routine bust one night, Lee and Bucky find themselves in the middle of a crime scene – the worst murder that LA has seen in decades.
Elizabeth Short is found bisected at the waist with her innards removed and her mouth slashed from ear-to-ear. Despite not technically being on the homicide beat, the prolific partnership of Blanchard and Bleichert are assigned to the case of the murder of the Black Dahlia.
As the investigation deepens, Lee and Bucky become obsessed with finding and apprehending the sadist responsible for Betty Short’s horrific murder. And just as their boxing strategies differ, Lee and Bucky find their obsessive tendencies manifesting in different ways. Bound by the woman they both love, they are forced to work with and against each other in order to stay sane, and to keep one another alive.

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James Ellroy, looking suspiciously like John Malkovich

The case of the Black Dahlia is, as you know, unsolved. And, as we also know, Ellroy’s account is a fictionalized one – but that doesn’t stop him from naming a culprit. I expected the novel to focus on the degradation of Bleichert and Blanchard’s mindsets, and I would have been happy with this – but Ellroy stepped it up a notch, and ID’d a killer in the process. And just in case this alone wasn’t enough for the reader, the killer’s identity comes in the form of a major twist – and THEN, it takes a roaring bend to tie up ends that you didn’t even realize were loose. After all that, the story ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note – what more could you want?

I think I’m a bit late in jumping on the Ellroy bandwagon. He’s already a highly respected crime writer, and considered one of the best contemporary noir authors. But I’d like to rhapsodize anyway. THE BLACK DAHLIA is a compelling examination of the way in which trauma, both direct and indirect, has an interminable knock-on effect. It is an investigation of the life of a homicide detective, and a lament for the way in which his life is irrevocably changed by the atrocities he faces daily. It is a portrait of psychopathy on several levels, and a study of the way in which human beings use each other. It is dry, sparsely written and utterly compulsive. It is haunting, affecting and highly disturbing, and I couldn’t put it down.

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Cover Art for Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia

As with any true crime derivative, I think it’s important to remember the victim. In the case of THE BLACK DAHLIA, Ellroy never forgets that at the heart of this fascinating story is a girl whose life was cut too short by the worst means possible, and that our fascination comes at the cost of her life. However she chose to live her life, Betty Short never got the chance to turn it around, or even to decide whether she wanted to. That is the tragedy that permeates the pages of Ellroy’s addictive noir novel, and never once does he cheapen the experience of the oft-forgotten victim.

If you’re missing Rust and Marty’s dysfunctional partnership, and you’ve a taste for hard-hitting noir, THE BLACK DAHLIA is a must-read.

Are you a Brisbanite? Then surely, you know where to go by now – go and visit Pulp Fiction in Central Station and ask them to order you a copy.

I actually bought my copy of The Black Dahlia from the wonderful second-hand bookstore, Bent Books! Located in Brisbane’s West End, Bent Books is full of unexpected finds and lovely people – go check them out too.

Plus, you can get one of these groovy totes.

Plus, you can get one of these groovy totes.

 Got a recommendation for a book like True Detective? Leave me a comment below!

Nnedi Okorafor’s WHO FEARS DEATH: A Review

Please note: The article contains discussion of the author’s treatment of rape and female circumcision in the context of a book review. 

Cover art for WHO FEARS DEATH

Cover art for WHO FEARS DEATH

Oneyesonwu was born of rape. A Nuru man, who wanted to impregnate her with a light-skinned baby, raped her mother. Instead of reviling her child as a lifelong reminder of her brutal assault, Onye’s mother speaks her truest wish – for her child to become a sorceress.
Forever labelled as Ewu, the product of rape, Onyesonwu becomes resilient to the prejudice she faces every day. As she grows up, she discovers that her strength also manifests in supernatural abilities. Her mother’s wish has come true – Onye is Eshu, a sorceress.
As a child, Onyesonwu meets another Ewu – a boy named Mwita, who is also a gifted healer. It soon becomes apparent that Onye and Mwita are destined to belong to one another.
Even though she knows her mother and her beloved stepfather love her, Onye feels responsible for the shame they have faced throughout her life, as the parents of a Nuru-Okeke Ewu. When she turns eleven, Onye makes the irreversible decision to go through with the Eleventh Rite, which she knows will bring her family honour and respect. In undertaking this enormous procedure, she is bonded to the three girls of her Eleventh Rite group – Diti, Luyu and Binta, her friends for life.
Despite the abuse she suffers on a daily basis, Onye lives a happy life. She longs to develop her magical abilities, and seeks an apprenticeship under a teacher who might be able to facilitate her learning. Although Aro, the teacher of magic, rejects her at first, Onye’s need for tutelage becomes great when it becomes apparent that her biological father intends to find and kill her.

Nnedi Okorafor was inspired to write Who Fears Death by a Washington Post article entitled “We Want to Make a Light Baby”. This distressing article brings to light the horrifying experiences of dark-skinned Sudanese women who are raped by Arabic men who hope to impregnate them. The victims believe that the rapes are a “systemic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.”
This unimaginable concept forms the basis for Onyesonwu’s story. Fuelled by her rage against the man who raped her mother, Onye is motivated to overcome the societal expectation that she is fated to become nothing more than a violent criminal.

Artist's interpretation of the post-apocalyptic African desert

Artist’s interpretation of the post-apocalyptic African desert

But Who Fears Death is more than a revenge story. In a place where outrage could have dominated, love is ever-present. Okorafor tenderly explores the nature of love in all its forms – romantic, cultural, platonic, familial and sexual. In fact, sexuality is a major focus of the book. It is linked throughout to Onye’s decision to undergo the Eleventh Rite when she comes of age. The Eleventh Rite is, as you might have guessed, is Onye’s circumcision.
I know that other reviewers have been disturbed by the circumcision scene, but have liked the rest of the book – I don’t really understand how they can separate the one scene from the remainder of the book. Onye’s decision to undergo the Rite is integral to the narrative of Who Fears Death. She, Binta, Diti and Luyu spend the rest of their lives together trying to cope with the decision that they made as children. Their circumcision not only affects their relationships with one another, but deeply shapes the way in which they relate to the opposite sex. Each of the four girls comes to bitterly regret the decision they made at age eleven, but they also respect the ritual and its cultural significance. Their struggle to overcome the expectations of the Okeke culture in order to do the right thing for themselves as individuals makes for an emotionally difficult read, but Okorafor handles this with poise and sensitivity.

Who Fears Death will not disappoint fans of traditional fantasy. There is a prophecy, a Chosen One, a wise old elder who begrudgingly passes his magical skills on to the younger generation, a young magic user whose powers are not wholly within her control, and a quest for revenge that has the potential to destroy our hero. There’s a Scooby Gang of sorts, hellbent on following our hero to the very end, and a love to transcend the ages.

The post-apocalyptic African setting brings us to a new world, where traditional culture has merged with the harsh necessities of life in the post-nuclear desert. And our hero is, in fact, a heroine – Onye is the indisputable centre of this novel. Her life force and her magic are the centre of the storm that she wends throughout the Okeke and Nuru societies. Onye is brave, irrational, frustrating, loving and beloved. She’s unforgettably powerful, in every sense, and she’s stronger than I can summarise in any text less than the length of the novel itself. Onyesonwu – Who Fears Death? Not she.

Incidentally, Nnedi Okorafor sent me this pic on Twitter to show me what Onye would like like.

Incidentally, Nnedi Okorafor sent me this pic on Twitter to show me what Onye would like like.

I can’t recommend Who Fears Death to everyone. It comes with a trigger warning for rape and FGM, even if it is exceptionally well handled. It’s a very emotional read, and although there’s a lot of love to the story, there isn’t as much happiness as traditional fantasy readers may expect. But it is as moving as it is original, and I’m pretty certain that it’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

As ever, I implore my Brisbane-based readers to make the trip to Central Station to pay Pulp Fiction a visit to grab a copy of Who Fears Death. Add Pulp on Facebook here, and check out their Twitter here. Also, I have Twitter too! Check out The Novelettes on Twitter here.

Jeff VanderMeer’s ANNIHILATION: Addictive New Weird!

Cover art for ANNIHILATION

Cover art for ANNIHILATION

In Annihilation, we follow journey of the twelfth expedition into the mysterious Area X. All the members of the previous parties have met strange and unexplained fates – some returned home a shell of their former selves; others died of ravaging illnesses and many were never seen again.

The twelfth expedition party consists of a psychologist, a biologist, and anthropologist, a surveryor and a linguist. The biologist, emotionally disconnected and highly analytical, tells us the story from the pages of her observational journal.

Soon after establishing their base camp, the team comes across an enormous tunnel descending into the earth. Inside this tunnel, the biologist finds evidence that a sentient being is scrawling erudite messages over the walls. Upon closer inspection, the biologist finds that the messages are written in living fungi.
As she leans in to take a sample, the fungi release a stream of spores into the air. After she accidentally inhales one, the biologist begins to monitor herself for any signs of illness or behavioural change. The first effect that she notices, however, is a sudden immunity to the hypnotic instruction that the psychologist is still administering to the surveyor, the anthropologist and the linguist.

Alternate cover art for ANNIHILATION

Alternate cover art for ANNIHILATION

Why is the psychologist hypnotising the team? What is her agenda? What is the Southern Reach, and who are they? What do they expect the team to find in Area X that the eleven expeditions before did not? Who, or what, is writing on the walls of the tunnel, and where did it come from? Now that she can see through the psychologist’s façade of natural leadership, the biologist knows that the unknown landscape of Area X is not the only danger she will face on this expedition.

Annihilation is written in epistolary format – that is, as a journal. The biologist, whose name we never learn, consciously refrains from connecting with her fellow explorers in an emotional context in favour of immersing herself in her environment. Much like Dr Caldwell from The Girl with All the Gifts, the biologist is wholly focused on her work. As she recounts events from her life before entering Area X, we begin to see that she has always been this way – almost frightening in her coldness. When her self-preservation instincts kick in, though, she’s downright terrifying.

Annihilation features minimal characterisation, and what we do see is only through the eyes of the nameless biologist. Because she is utterly uninterested in engaging with her fellow explorers, she gives us very little idea of what her companions are actually like. We get the general idea that the psychologist is up to something, that the anthropologist can’t hack it in Area X, and that the surveyor is driven mad, but we spend most of the narrative inside the biologist’s head. As you might be able to guess, this makes for an uncomfortable and somewhat alienating read.
The biologist elaborates on her own past through ruminations on her marriage. A solitary person, the biologist found that she was at constant odds with her outgoing, social husband. As she delves deeper into Area X, she descends into a sort of madness, whereby she ends up pulling her marriage apart.

ANNIHILATION 1

  Annihilation clearly takes its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but there are other influences at work here too. The landscape of Area X is a living thing, and it becomes the biologist’s adversary, partner, lover and self.  And let me just clarify, when I say the landscape is alive, I literally mean that it is made of living, breathing tissue. I found this fascinating and quite disturbing, and the glimpses that I got of it were just not enough. As I’m sure you can predict, Vandermeer has taken a leaf out of the Necronomicon here – Annihilation has a distinctly Lovecraftian vibe. I really wouldn’t be surprised if the mysterious being scrawling strange messages inside the Tunnel is a Great Old One, to be honest.

Cover art for AUTHORITY, to be released in May 2014.

Cover art for AUTHORITY, to be released in May 2014.

I burned through Annihilation in twenty four hours. I was addicted to the suspense, and the ever-present sense of foreboding that was only heightened by the cliff-hanger ending. Thankfully, Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy, to be followed by Authority and Acceptance in May and September respectively (side note – how great is it that they’re all coming out in one year?). If you’re a fan of horror, suspense, dystopian SF, New Weird or anything vaguely Lovecraftian, I highly recommend you grab your copy ASAP!

I received a proof copy of Annihilation in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Pulp Fiction!

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