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Chalk by Paul Cornell

Andrew Waggoner has always hung around with his fellow losers at school, desperately hoping each day that the school bullies — led by Drake — will pass him by in search of other prey. But one day they force him into the woods, and the bullying escalates into something more; something unforgivable; something unthinkable.

Broken, both physically and emotionally, something dies in Waggoner, and something else is born in its place.

In the hills of the West Country a chalk horse stands vigil over a site of ancient power, and there Waggoner finds in himself a reflection of rage and vengeance, a power and persona to topple those who would bring him low.
Paul Cornell is perhaps best known for his work on Doctor Who, both as a novellist on the New Adventures years and as a TV writer for New Who; although his brand of urban fantasy, showcased in the Shadow Police and Lychford series, is also gaining popularity. Last year also brought us Chalk, out from, a very different beast…

Chalk is a straight up rural horror novella of a very particular era in British history. Cornell conjures Wiltshire in the 1980s very powerfully, with the grip of Thatcher on a fraying, impoverished nation, with the failing old order and aristocracy, with the rising punk youth. He also conjures a sense of the ancient in conflict with the modern; the old order rising in new forms in conflict with the new, although he very much does not map these onto political or pop cultural movements neatly. Instead, the zeitgeist is a powerful force wrestled over by modernity and the ancient, as the old seeks to influence the new in dark and bloody ways.

This is a dark and brutal little story; Chalk starts with a violent sexual mutilation of a teenage boy by a group of others, and only gets more graphically violent from there. Cornell continually blurs the lines between the real and the metaphorical throughout, so that the brutality is at once incredibly close, and slightly distanced by the possibility of Waggoner lying; the reader is invited repeatedly to question the truth of the narrator’s account by the narrator himself, in a curious approach to the story that is incredibly effective. Everything is a set of different narratives seen differently by different people; is this just the self-justifying story Waggoner tells himself later, or is Andrew telling the truth about what happened throughout? The subtlety of that question and the openness of its answer, because Andrew Waggoner is our sole narrator and viewpoint, is central.

That ambivalence also extends to the characters of Chalk. This is a viciously honest book: no character is innocent and in the right; everyone is, in their own way, stained. Andrew commits violent, vile acts, including sexual harassment (which he, reflecting on his past, describes as such); but he is also the victim of vile and violent acts, which do not justify his own acts. His tormentors are in similar positions. The whole novella is an exercise in awful people doing awful things for awful reasons; Cornell makes it somehow compelling despite there not really being a single character to root for. A couple of the women of Chalk, namely Angie and Elaine, come closest to being sympathetic characters; but Elaine is too much a cipher acted on by others but barely herself acting, and Angie is too objectified by Andrew to really grow into her own character.

I’m not sure, in the end, how to feel about Chalk. What it is, is masterfully executed; but I’m not sure that the masterfully executed thing is worthwhile, especially given some of what it includes. This definitely shows the breadth of Cornell’s writing ability, though…

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The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3_quote4_pms2_pink
In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
Brooke Bolander’s work has garnished any number of nominations, including multiple Locus, Hugo, and Nebula awards, among others. The Only Harmless Great Thing is her first solo volume; a slim novella out of, it’s already picked up a lot of interesting buzz and an excellent marketing campaign… but does the novella bear out the speculation?

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very odd book; it marries together alternate history with a science fictional future, in two parallel narratives, with a third, folkloric deep-history narrative running alongside those two. Bolander’s choices of narratives are not pleasant ones. The Only Harmless Great Thing is the story of an elephant, Topsy, brought with a little alternate history into the story of Regan, a Radium Girl. In Bolander’s world, elephants are discovered to have language and a degree of sentience in the 1880s, and so when the effects of radium were discovered, US Radium brought elephants in to paint the watches – one of whom is Topsy. In a parallel narrative, much later, Kat is trying to persuade elephants to allow humans to make them glow near nuclear waste dumps as a lasting warning about the presence of radiation, as a ten-thousand-year warning sign.

Bolander slips between the different narratives, registers, and narrators of The Only Harmless Great Thing with a skillful grace and ease that ties the whole thing together; the voices are very distinct, and that helps to distinguish between the stories as we slip between them. At times, it can be a little confusing for a few lines, but on the whole which narrative Bolander has the reader in rapidly becomes clear. The alternate and future histories are intertwined seamlessly with reality, and on the whole their revelation is well done; there are moments Bolander relies on knowledge that she hasn’t given the audience yet, but they’re few and far between.

This is a sparsely characterised novella; The Only Harmless Great Thing has a grand total of nine characters, which includes two pachyderms, one character who only speaks once and that through a post-mortem letter, an interpreter, a supervisor, an academic, a corporate executive, and a bitter Radium Girl. Of these, three are at various times viewpoint characters, and the rest appear only briefly; Bolander doesn’t make their characters much more than the flat necessities for the advancement of the plot, but her three core characters, those whose viewpoints we follow, are far better realised.

Each has a very unique voice and thought process, from the slangy dialect of Regan through to the mythopoetic style of thought of Topsy and the straightforwardly modern Kat. The Only Harmless Great Thing does a fantastic job of showing how Topsy’s and Regan’s lives parallel each other and how their struggles with forces outside and larger than themselves change them. There is a strong streak of radical politics on display in the work, and a class anger, that Bolander infuses with a kind of bleak despair at the state of the treatment of the working classes and of nature; and the way she uses that and filters it through her characters is incredibly powerful. The problem is Kat; Bolander’s treatment of her is uneven, and her character veers sharply between profoundly empathetic and profoundly disconnected, growing from one to the other and back again, and without any real sense of who she is as a person outside the project she proposed.

Finally, and almost without characters, is the deep-history myth-narrative that runs alongside these two core narratives. Bolander tells this in something akin to the style of a Just So story; and her style for these sections is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and the story itself is dark, moving, and painful. The Only Harmless Great Thing takes this extra piece of the jigsaw and moves, suddenly, from a two dimensional to a three dimensional puzzle, a complex narrative of interlocking parts with multiple messages; it’s only at the end that the relevance of this story becomes obvious to the others, in a very neat bit of writing.

The Only Harmless Great Thing isn’t a perfect novella, but it is a fantastic one; Bolander’s continues to go from strange, dark strength to dark, strange strength, and this continues that trend.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided on request by the publisher,

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The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt


The shady crew of the White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials… and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.
Angry Robot Books send me semi-regular packages of books they think I might like; one arrived, purely by coincidence I presume, on my birthday, and included Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars. It took a few weeks to get around to reading it, but I ended up in the mood for an interesting space opera, and there it was…

The Wrong Stars is, perhaps above all else, fun. This isn’t space opera as serious or po-faced; one crew member is named purely so Pratt can get in a few different pop culture references and running jokes across the course of the novel, after all. There are fast-paced action scenes, ridiculously strange aliens with a brilliantly twisted and hilarious approach to first contact with humanity, and wise-cracking crew members. The majority of the book is written in quite a breezy style, even where there are relatively heavy discussions going on, and even the action scenes have a certain humourous quality to them.

That lightness of touch means that when Pratt does get heavy, The Wrong Stars doesn’t feel like a book about issues of slavery or colonialism, even though at its heart are questions about that. The heavier discussions are introduced slowly through the book, which engages increasingly seriously with heavy issues as it goes on, to the point where there are some horrendously dark sections towards the end of the novel that would feel, had there not been the slow build up, completely at odds with the opening of the book, which was open horror but not this kind of evil. Pratt balances things carefully, and the humour never goes out of the book, but the heaviness is also not undercut by a willingness to include humour.

In many ways, The Wrong Stars shares a lot of structural similarities to Bioware’s wonderful Mass Effect games. Pratt’s approach to characterisation is the strongest overlap here. The whole cast of The Wrong Stars would not be out of place on board the SSV Normandy; they’re wise-cracking, curious, daring, and intelligent. Different crew members have radically different outlooks on life; we have traumatised survivors of alien medical procedures, in the form of Drake and Janice, who are treated sensitively and intelligently, and who Pratt doesn’t use as the butt of any humour (although Janice’s dark cynicism and misanthropy are a source of a lot. The captain, Carrie, is a bold, decisive character with a troubled history and a strong sense of loyalty; and Elena’s unabashed sexuality make a pleasing contrast here, their budding relationship being one of the highlights of the book.

Indeed, the queerness of The Wrong Stars is refreshing to behold. Carrie and Elena are both bisexual, Carrie also self-identifying as demisexual; Janice is asexual, and explicitly this was the case before her trauma; Uzoma is nonbinary, using they pronouns, and touch-averse; and one other character is, at the close of the book, casually and in passing revealed to be a binary trans woman. None of these are a big deal; in Pratt’s future, queerness just is, not a source of angst (although romance can be, in the general minefield of interpersonal relationships way of things).

At times, the book can get a bit wearing, however. The Wrong Stars really could have resolved its romantic tension far faster, although it isn’t left simmering unresolved too long; the urge to bash characters’ heads, or other bits, together grates somewhat. Similarly, the humour and lightness of the banter at times feels a touch too uniform; Pratt’s dialogue is good, but Carrie, Lantern and Elena aside, the characters’ voices tend to blur together, in the same way Joss Whedon’s characters often do, and with the same register and tone.

I did enjoy The Wrong Stars, though, and Tim Pratt’s first space opera is a very enjoyable ride; especially if you’re a fan of Mass Effect!

Disclaimer: This review was based on an unsolicited final copy of the novel sent to me by the publisher, Angry Robot Books.

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Lightless by C. A. Higgins

Serving aboard the Ananke, an experimental military spacecraft launched by the ruthless organization that rules Earth and its solar system, computer scientist Althea has established an intense emotional bond—not with any of her crewmates, but with the ship’s electronic systems, which speak more deeply to her analytical mind than human feelings do. But when a pair of fugitive terrorists gain access to the Ananke, Althea must draw upon her heart and soul for the strength to defend her beloved ship.

While one of the saboteurs remains at large somewhere on board, his captured partner — the enigmatic Ivan — may prove to be more dangerous. The perversely fascinating criminal whose silver tongue is his most effective weapon has long evaded the authorities’ most relentless surveillance—and kept the truth about his methods and motives well hidden.

As the ship’s systems begin to malfunction and the claustrophobic atmosphere is increasingly poisoned by distrust and suspicion, it falls to Althea to penetrate the prisoner’s layers of intrigue and deception before all is lost. But when the true nature of Ivan’s mission is exposed, it will change Althea forever—if it doesn’t kill her first.
Lightless has been on my shelves for at least a year, and in my awareness for even longer, ever since I heard about it as a potentially interesting space opera; finally, this first book in Higgins’ series made it to the top of the TBR when I was looking for an interesting science fiction novel…

The premise of Lightless is an unusual one; the story is told from the perspective of two people, Althea, an engineer loyal to the System and with what seems to be some kind of autism, and from her arrival, Ida Stays, a sociopathic agent of the System’s law enforcement. Ida’s perspective is rather flat and uninteresting on the whole, simply giving us an evil agent of an evil dystopia, with only her personal ambition as a motive; it’s useful for background and exposition, as well as an interesting position to take in the interrogations of Ivan, but as a character she’s utterly unsympathisable with and something of a caricature.

Althea, on the other hand, has her own frustrations. Lightless is set in a world with a repressive dystopian System of governance that includes constant universal surveillance. Althea seems aware of how dystopian it is (the extreme methods used to suppress dissent, and her nerves about being watched, for instance); but at the same time she seems perfectly happy with and loyal to the System itself. This cognitive dissonance is never explored, and works as a strange faultline down the middle of her character. Similarly, her hyperfocus on her work and inability to communicate well with fellow crewmates seems to come and go; at times she is written as being to some extent autistic, and at others, completely neurotypical, with some strangely inconsistent characterisation.

The rest of the cast of Lightless is small; Ivan, our criminal, is meant to be incredibly charismatic, but never shows that charisma in any meaningful way, and people listen to him not because of anything shown in his character but because the plot demands it to work. Domitian, the captain of the Ananke, is a frustrating character because he doesn’t really have a character; he’s just utterly swayed by the events of the moment to a degree that is spectacular. Finally, Gagnon is a kind of comic relief for the most part; he’s an interesting character whose friendship with Althea is absolutely beautifully written, but at times it just falls apart, again for reasons of Plot.

Given all this, Lightless really hangs together on the plot. Higgins gives us a rather minimalist structure; Gale and Ivan break into the Ananke, are captured, Gale escapes and does something to the ship’s computer, Ivan remains in captivity and is interrogated by Ida, as things become more tense and Something is clearly coming. There should be a sense of claustrophobia, but that’s not the kind of book Higgins has written; instead, it’s a fast-paced con novel, with stories inside stories and layers of deception everywhere. This is where the novel comes in to its own; very little action with very high stakes are pulled off fantastically, and the emotional intensity comes across powerfully, despite the flaws of the characters themselves. The final plot twists are relatively obvious, although one reveal was unexpected but well seeded, and Lightless doesn’t have many curveball surprises, but the tenseness is kept up through to the last quarter and works powerfully effectively.

In the end, I read Lightless in the space of a few concentrated hours, and enjoyed it while reading it, even while I was deeply frustrated with the inconsistency of the characterisation; Higgins writes tension exceptionally well, I just wish there was a little more to this novel.

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Barbary Station by R. E. Stearns

Two engineers hijack a spaceship to join some space pirates — only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Now they have to outwit the AI if they want to join the pirate crew — and survive long enough to enjoy it.

Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.

But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury — they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave — so there’s no way out.
I’ve been excited for this one ever since Navah Wolfe first started talking about it, describing it as “lesbian women of color space pirates vs a murderous AI” on Twitter. I’ve been waiting since then with bated breath to get my hands on Stearns’ debut, and Barbary Station is finally here!

Barbary Station is primarily a fun novel about swashbuckling pirates, even with the darker concerns at its heart. The whole book is focused on a rather simple premise, of a kind perhaps familiar to players of Portal: the need to use intelligence and brute force in combination to escape a murderous situation in which the clock is ticking down to inevitable death. Stearns plays with the concept a little by expanding the group who need rescuing – not just the protagonist, or her and her lover, but a whole merc group cum pirate crew and a group of refugees trapped on the space station too.

The writing is, on the whole, the breeziness that this kind of plot needs; Barbary Station is tense and dramatic, but those things meant to raise the stakes don’t land with quite the emotional force Stearns needed. While no one is safe, and child death is used on multiple occasions as an emblem of ruthlessness on the part of those opposing our protagonists, these deaths are little felt, in part because we don’t tend to know the characters well; even to the rest of the cast, they feel passing, as the impacts wear off too quickly. The action scenes are where Stearns is at her best; fast-paced and slightly chaotic, they don’t feel choreographed, and that makes those parts of Barbary Station the best by a distance.

Stearns’ other strength is the relationship between three of her characters, the two viewpoint protagonists and one secondary; that is, Iridian, Adda, and Adda’s brother Pel. Barbary Station is told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of Adda and Iridian, and their love is touching and beautifully written; the way each is deeply concerned with the safety of others and knows their own, and each other’s, strengths is movingly told. They are the central star around which the other orbits, and Stearns gets that emotional payload across without it feeling forced or meaningless. Barbary Station‘s only other emotional weight is that between Adda and Iridian, as newcomers to the station, and Pel, Adda’s brother but who brought them to the station with promises of wealth; it’s a well written developing relationship that really does help to ground everything.

Unfortunately, the relationships within the rest of the crew, and between crew and Adda and Iridian, are much less solid. Barbary Station tends towards light characterisation, and lightly worn emotion; things that should have extremely heavy emotional impact might have that briefly, but then it rapidly wears off – just as Stearns has physical impacts surprisingly rapidly vanish from the characters. This gives a sense of superficiality to the book; nothing particularly matters to the characters for long, and where Stearns is trying to invest us in them, that really falls down.

A final problem for Barbary Station is how contrived it becomes as the action ramps up to the climax. Stearns introduces not only multiple additional vectors of problems, but also a whole new faction, to the station as she brings things to their head; the split in reader attention is frustrating and the attempt to heighten all the stakes at once actually just serves to undercut all the stakes before, as if Stearns hadn’t felt like there was any danger until this moment so had to add more. Barbary Station comes to a head less with a bang than a bit of a chaotic whimper, sadly.

In the end, I’m judging Barbary Station by the wrong standards, though. Stearns doesn’t appear to be writing high literature; she’s writing a fun, swashbuckling novel, with action and (well-written lesbians). On that front, at least, she unequivocally succeeds; just don’t look too deep.

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An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remains of her world.

Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot—if she’s willing to sow the seeds of civil war.
When a book comes with a blurb from a thriller-writing sensation like Lee Child, and a stellar review from the wonderful Amal El-Mohtar, that’s already a fascinating pitch to me. When the author is themselves an agender person, and writing about queer characters? Well, finally, An Unkindness of Ghosts came out, and I got a copy…

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a generation ship novel, and in many ways, partakes of the standard tropes of that subgenre of science fiction novel; including a dystopian social structure evolved over the generations, myths of a long-ago Earth, and something going wrong that means the journey is, apparently, to those on the ship, now endless. Solomon’s innovations are on the more specific, than the abstract, level; what they do with these tropes is where their genius comes in, how they execute this standard model.

The key influence in the worldbuilding of An Unkindness of Ghosts is plantation slavery as practiced in the United States of America. Solomon has taken that social model and transposed it, almost without alteration, to a spaceship, the HSS Matilda. The way the whole social life of the ship works is based on slavery and racism, and Solomon doesn’t shy away from the brutality of plantation slavery; the opulence of the white rich is contrasted sharply with the abject poverty and abuse of the black slave-classes.

Regular, gendered violence is part of An Unkindness of Ghosts, something Solomon’s characters recognise as both appalling and inevitable (Aster, our protagonist, takes daily precautions to reduce the physical harm rape would do; but the characters are scarred and hurt by their experiences). Similarly, racist language and thought permeates An Unkindness of Ghosts, the way it permeates a good novel about the 19th century Southern United States of America: presented and represented as part of life, as something to be struggled with, but also absolutely unacceptable and wrong.

One of the joys of the novel is how queer Solomon has made it. Aster, our main viewpoint character in An Unkindness of Ghosts, is intersex and bisexual; it’s not one of the defining features of her character. More key to her character is that she is what we would refer to as autistic, and that is portrayed beautifully and sensitively by Solomon; they don’t go in for stereotypes, like making Aster unfeeling or unempathetic, but think about what lies under behaviours such as an apparent lack of sense of humour or excessive literalism. Aint Melusine, who brought Aster up, is asexual and aromantic; the chapter from her viewpoint is absolutely beautiful, and while centring her asexuality also expands on things like her feelings about being a nanny for the white upper classes of the ship. Theo, the Surgeon, is trans and possibly homosexual; he doesn’t seem wholly clear himself about his gender, but clearly he feels uncomfortable with the cis male role he is socially forced in to as part of the ship’s heirarchy. And so on; there are various queer characters in the novel, and Solomon portrays them honestly and humanly, as imperfect and not defined by their queerness.

An Unkindness of Ghosts faces them with a homophobic, queerphobic society, driven by a twisted set of religious beliefs very recognisable as evangelical Christianity with a pinch more Calvinism thrown in for good measure. Solomon, in their unflinching look at prejudice, doesn’t have much interest in showing the caring face the prejudiced man shows to those he believes his equal; instead, they are solely focused on the impacts of prejudice on those who suffer it, and the novel is stronger for that focus. As a result, the white characters tend to be less fully fleshed out than the black ones, but also rather more infrequent and minor, too; and it’s a refreshing change to not be asked to empathise with the enforcers of an appalling social order.

An Unkindness of Ghosts isn’t solely an exploration of the brutality of plantation life, of racism, of queerphobia; it’s also a novel about curiosity and discovery. Aster’s story is about learning, and about finding out what underlies much of the ship; each discovery leads her further into future discoveries, and Solomon makes them all link beautifully. Each discovery also brings her further into conflict with the heirarchy of the ship, and Solomon doesn’t flinch from inflicting tragedy on both Aster and the reader as a result; the raising stakes are deftly done, and darkly honest. This gives the climax of the novel incredible power; it is a perfect culmination for both the plot of the novel and its emotional stakes, while being very open for the reader to imagine what comes next.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is one of those novels that just changes what the reader thinks of as possible with the genre it partakes of, by proving just how much excellence is possible; it’s also a brutal, powerful, gut-wrenching read. This is Rivers Solomon’s debut, so where they go next, and how they find space to level up, is anyone’s guess…!

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Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

America, 1920s. A plague is spreading, and it’s spreading fast, from New Orleans to Chicago to New York.

It’s an epidemic of freedom, joy and self-expression, being spread by Black artists, that makes anyone who catches it desperate to dance, sing, laugh and jive. It’s the outbreak of Jazz, Ragtime and Blues onto the world scene; the spirit of Blackness overtaking America and the world. And it’s threatening to dismantle the whole social order.

Working to root out the plague by any means possible – even murder – are the members of The Wallflower Order, an international conspiracy dedicated to puritanism and control. But, deep in the heart of Harlem, private eye and Vodun priest Papa LaBas is determined to defend his flourishing ancient culture against their insidious plans. And so, he finds himself locked in a race against the Order to find an ancient Egyptian text which might just be the key to keeping the virus of freedom alive.
I first heard of Mumbo Jumbo through, specifically this essay in Nisi Shawl’s fantastic History of Black Science Fiction series. Given Shawl’s recommendation, I picked it up – from the general fiction, not SFF, section – as soon as I saw the new Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Mumbo Jumbo is an odd book; there is a single narrative strain to it, a single plot, but the way Reed tells his story, it feels rather more disjointed, more confused, less cohesive as a single thing. This is clearly an intentional choice, and lends a fascinating kind of puzzle quality to the book; working out how different things, different characters, and different aspects of the novel fit together with each other becomes a harder task, but also a more rewarding one, than in a more traditional Western narrative. Reed rejects these models to combine different forms into a single work, creating a modernist experimental novel.

That novel follows the phenomenon of Jes Grew, a kind of socio-spiritual movement which combines dance, religion, and free decolonised thought; Mumbo Jumbo can be read as (relatively) mimetic if the reader chooses, though Reed’s inclusion of supernatural elements, and a consciousness and intention behind Jes Grew, suggests such a reading would lose something key. The different things Reed draws into the story of Jes Grew include Western global colonialism, Black cultural development and radical Black thought in 1920s America, an internationalist tendency, a resistance to Western patronisation of other cultures, and more.

One of the ways Reed takes on imperialism in Mumbo Jumbo is through the Mu’tafikah, an internationalist and multiracial group dedicated to taking non-Western artifacts from Western museums and returning them to the cultures from which they were plundered. Reed is unabashedly on the side of these liberators, and the novel has, in its occasional moments of focus on them, an absolutely brilliant heist quality and sense of lightness. The characters of the Mu’tafikah are some of the most oddball of the novel, and absolutely wonderfully characterised, with their own prejudices but working together through them against a common enemy.

The other, more central plot of the novel follows the attempts of the Wallflower Order to suppress Jes Grew. Mumbo Jumbo posits an ideological system called Atonism that is upheld across the West, and seems to have its roots in Judaism; there is a somewhat antisemitic undercurrent in the way that Judaism is treated as a (part of) a shadowy force that has constantly attempted to suppress Black thought and art down history. The different ways the Atonists try to control power, and the different Atonist organisations – including the Knights Templar, and the Masons, naturally – are unsurprising and typical of this kind of conspiracy, but the way Reed writes them as barely competent and always on the edge of exposure and total failure is refreshing. Similarly, so is the opposition to the conspiracy; Reed gives us different individuals working at cross-purposes to the same ends of Black liberation, and Mumbo Jumbo draws both comic and tragic power from the factionalism of the resistance to White supremacy and the Wallflower Order.

The actual characters of Mumbo Jumbo are, given how intellectual the underpinnings of the novel are, actually fully fleshed out and interesting characters, far more than just authorial constructs. Reed gives us a broad cast, including Black gangsters and hustlers, White newsmen and bigots, a VouDou priest who also has a sideline in private detection, a Nation of Islam forerunner, and more. They’ve all got pasts, and perspectives on the Jes Grew phenomenon and the state of America; they’ve all got different interests outside the focus of the novel which they attend to from time to time, taking time away from the plot only to appear again, or even being followed while doing something of little immediate bearing. Mumbo Jumbo‘s pages are peopled by characters who are not only fully fleshed out but also familiar; not as tropes, but as people one might know, might have encountered in life, and Reed makes them all feel like old friends.

Mumbo Jumbo is a bit of a jumble of a novel, but it’s also a work of genius; a modernist masterpiece, a patchwork of different elements that arguably ought not to work together, but that Reed brings together with a confidence and style that makes it look almost easy. This is a strange, mind-bending read, like little else I’ve read.

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