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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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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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A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be,
And wild as forest doe.
(The Child Ballads, 295)

So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape.
Folklore and mythology have always been fertile ground for genre fiction; Joanne Harris herself, with an added Iain Banks-style M., has previously touched on the Norse sagas in novels like Runelight and The Gospel of Loki. Now, though, she’s turned her sights to a mythology far more rarely treated in fiction: that of the Child Ballads, in this case, specifically Child Ballad 295…

Harris’ novella retelling the story of that Ballad is focused, as is the ballad itself, on the wronged woman at its heart; the “brown girl” of the title. In A Pocketful of Crows, Harris makes this titular woman a witch, a member of the “travelling folk” who can take on the form of animals and do certain magic. She falls in love with a local lord’s son, William McCormac. This fall is precipitous and extreme; Harris writes sympathetically and with a lot of heart about the way our protagonist slowly realises how deep her attachment to William is, and the way her denial of it slowly falls away, over the course of a series of months; and the way he slowly accepts her and draws her in, tempting her into the human society he is a part of and naming her Malmuira. As a result of this, she loses her powers, and Harris writes about the trade off of magic for love with a real beauty; it’s heart-wrenching but worthwhile for the protagonist, even as she regrets the loss.

Of course, this can’t continue; A Pocketful of Crows isn’t a romance, after all. Instead, William casts aside Malmuira on the orders of his father, as an unsuitable partner; at which point Harris’ narrative takes on a colder, crueler turn, as she seeks to regain her old powers and freedoms. This takes up the latter two thirds of the book, as the woman who was nameless then named Malmuira frees herself from the tangle of human concerns involved in loving William; it’s a dark series of events, and Harris revels in that darkness, really giving it weight and heft. However, A Pocketful of Crows doesn’t just delve into the darkness; it contrasts that with the way its protagonist finds her freedom through this darkness, and how she returns to herself rather than the person tangled up with William. The way Harris ties these two narratives strands together, and then slips a third brilliant twist in right at the close of the novella, is absolutely brilliantly crafted.

This section, the latter two thirds of the novella, contains both the most beautiful writing in A Pocketful of Crows, and also some of the least effective. The darkness and frustration of the protagonist is powerfully evocative, and the way Harris calls the passing seasons and changing world to mind brilliantly and with a real sensorium. However, it can also drags a little; scenes feel repetitive as nothing happens or changes, and as we experience slight variations on the same events time and again, losing some of the edge of the book.

Throughout the story is a theme of identity as mediated not by the individual, but by the way the individual is perceived; as Malmuira’s identity in the public perception shifts and warps from William’s bit on the side to an evil witch, the character herself finds herself freer of human society and the constraints it imposed on her powers. A Pocketful of Crows is deeply concerned with the idea of the mutability of stories; the way Christianity is overlaid on old folk beliefs, the way fear of witches can develop and be fostered, and the way stories change are all things that Harris doesn’t foreground so much as allow the reader to glimpse the importance of as she tells this dark tale.

The big flaw in the novella is the way it carries certain racist tropes from its inspiration. A Pocketful of Crows is based on a Child Ballad, which carried tropes about mystical Travellers and magical dark skinned people. While Harris makes her brown girl into a non-human being, solitary and isolated, a truly magical witch rather than a Romani person, there is still a hint of the way much Western literature caricatures the Romani people in there, perhaps inescapably.

In the end, though, A Pocketful of Crows is a dark tale, and a savage one, and a beautiful one; Harris really shows what she can do with the short form in this little novella.

Disclaimer: Joanne Harris is a friend. This review was based an ARC, without illustrations, provided by the publisher, Gollancz. An event to launch the novella will be held at Waterstones Argyle Street, my place of work, on October 18th.

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The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

It is 1892, and the backstreets of Edinburgh are rife with disease. Sarah’s journey into medicine has been chequered: she’s left London and scandal behind her, and embarked on a career that neither her family, nor the male students she encounters in the bastions of Edinburgh’s university is happy about. But what Sarah hasn’t anticipated is the hostility of her fellow female doctors. No one is accepting of a fallen woman.

Then Sarah discovers the battered corpse of one of her own patients in the dissecting rooms, and she is drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels and body snatchers – and a confrontation with her own past. Even in medicine, Sarah realises, success comes at a price.
Medical crime mystery isn’t a new genre; Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series focus on a forensic scientist, and Patricia Cornwell has been writing about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta for over two decades now. Welsh’s innovation is to reset this same kind of story into a past when both medical and crime-solving knowledge were rather behind their present state…

Wages of Sin is centred on Sarah Gilchrist, who has been sent to Edinburgh to escape some disgrace in London whose nature is hinted at from the start of the novel but only revealed later on. Welsh writes her as something of a snob, and very driven; but she’s also an engaging character, with an absolute desire to be an independent woman engaging in the work of medicine. Those kinds of contradictions drive many of the other characters as well; Welsh shows women attacking other women not as a manifestation of misogyny, but as a self-defence mechanism. However, the male characters tend to be a bit flat, whether heroes or villains; they feel rather cardboard, as does everyone a little beside the fleshed out complexity of Sarah herself.

The plot of Wages of Sin is an interesting one, combining as it does a murder mystery with Sarah’s struggle to get through medical school. The medical side of things takes an increasing back seat as the novel progresses, which is rather frustrating, since it’s well researched and fascinating to see the obstacles Sarah faces as well as what she’s learning. The murder plot is where Welsh’s great strength lies; it takes us across the dark underbelly of Edinburgh as well as into some of its higher houses, and looks at conceptions of gender as an explicit element of the murders. The suspects change and shift, and so much of the chase is affected by Sarah’s preconceptions, which Welsh plays with very well. It’s unfortunate that Wages of Sin includes the developing romantic subplot that it does, given how poorly written that element is an how steeped it is in obvious cliche, and the way the novel ends is a little too convenient and trite, but overall the plot works and the clues are properly placed.

One thing that must be discussed is the way that Wages of Sin is an explicitly feminist novel. Welsh engages with the way women in the late 19th century were patronised and locked out of public life, by other women as well as by men; the way the legal system and social attitudes discriminated against them; and with homophobia. One of the things running through the whole novel is the attitude of 19th century Britain to rape, especially in the upper middle classes; Welsh deals with the topic sensitively, but doesn’t let the reader escape without realising how much some of those harmful attitudes persist.

The place where Welsh’s feminism falls down is in its engagement with sex work; Wages of Sin engages strongly in whorephobic language and models of sex work; this is partly due to its protagonist’s views, but the narrative never challenges those views, and indeed consistently upholds them as true. Given the engagement with sex work that is present in the novel, it would have been nice to have Welsh challenge the views of the society about which she is writing – which tend to be the views of our modern society, too.

In the end, Wages of Sin is a fun novel with a good crime caper at its heart, and a great medical student drama; the romance is overwritten and the ending is trite, but I look forward to seeing where Welsh goes next.

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Spectred Isle by K. J. Charles

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.
At Eastercon, Juliet Kemp recommended I read K. J. Charles’ historical romance novels; she extended the same recommendation at Nineworlds, where Charles happened to be appearing, selling copies of her latest novel, the first in a new stand-alone series. So I picked up Spectred Isle and read it on the flight from London to Helsinki…

Spectred Isle is set in the wake of the First World War, in 1920s Britain; a society divided by class but united by the terrible experience of the war and following pneumonia, which wiped out so much of the population. Into this society are dropped Saul Lazenby, disgraced discharged soldier now working for an eccentric lord, and Randolph Glyde, a member of Britain’s magical and temporal aristocracies. This is a romance, so the end result is inevitable; what we read Charles for is to see how she’ll get there, and what obstacles will appear in the characters’ ways.

The biggest obstacle is themselves. Spectred Isle does a great job at writing the two romantic partners as opposites who bounce off each other hard even as they find the other incredibly attractive; the dynamic of their developing relationship is written sympathetically and powerfully, although at times with a bit of a knowing wink to the reader at the inevitability of them getting together. Each carries their own, different wounds, as well as their different experiences of being gay in 1920s Britain; Charles draws them together in a tender and beautiful emotional net built out of their different characters.

Aside from that, there is also the external obstacle of the supernatural. Spectred Isle is a book as much about supernatural sleuthing as it is about burgeoning romance; something or someone is attacking Britain’s magical defences, weakened by the slaughter of the occult war that underlay the physical one, and Randolph has to stop it. Saul seems to keep blundering in his way, until eventually, he’s drawn into the strange web being woven around the occult sites of England; and transitions from a sceptic to a believer in magic himself. Charles builds this plot slowly and carefully, placing clues as to what’s going on the way a crime writer does; putting the pieces together gives rise to a bigger picture that will, the reader presumes, continue in the later installments in the series.

Spectred Isle is interesting in the way Charles uses her setting. In 1920s Britain, homosexual sex was a criminal act, but also one that was, in the upper classes at least, often tacitly accepted; Randolph and Saul thus have very different attitudes to their sexualities, although there are interesting commonalities. What Charles never does is let either become a tragic figure, or the only queers in the world; this is a setting which has background queers of all kinds, and while both have tragedy in their past, in neither case is it solely because of their homosexuality. It’s a hard balance to strike, but an important one.

Finally, but very worth note, this is a romance novel that goes straight into erotica. Charles is very willing to put sex on the page, and explicit, slightly kinky sex at that; Spectred Isle has a few sex scenes, and each is different, well-imagined, and hot. They are sex scenes which reveal a lot about the characters, and grow organically out of the interactions between their personality types; made all the more sexy by the way Charles doesn’t shy away from being explicit, or having her characters be so.

Spectred Isle was my first taste of Charles’ period gay romance, but it definitely won’t be my last; this is a hot and brilliant book and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

Deacon James is a rambling bluesman straight from Georgia, a black man with troubles that he can’t escape, and music that won’t let him go. On a train to Arkham, he meets trouble — visions of nightmares, gaping mouths and grasping tendrils, and a madman who calls himself John Persons. According to the stranger, Deacon is carrying a seed in his head, a thing that will destroy the world if he lets it hatch.

The mad ravings chase Deacon to his next gig. His saxophone doesn’t call up his audience from their seats, it calls up monstrosities from across dimensions. As Deacon flees, chased by horrors and cultists, he stumbles upon a runaway girl, who is trying to escape the destiny awaiting her. Like Deacon, she carries something deep inside her, something twisted and dangerous. Together, they seek to leave Arkham, only to find the Thousand Young lurking in the woods.

The song in Deacon’s head is growing stronger, and soon he won’t be able to ignore it any more.
Khaw has written, over the last year or so, weird noir, in the first Persons Non Grata novella Hammers on Bone; culinary horror in the form of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef; and supernatural romance, in Bearly A Lady. So coming to the second Persons Non Grata novella, one might expect to get another slice of weird noir… one would have to think again, though.

Instead, A Song For Quiet is much closer in kind to Victor LaValle’s Hugo-nominated A Ballad For Black Tom; historically set, Khaw engages with the racial background against which much of the early weird fiction was written, and takes the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. Much of the narrative is driven by the way oppression and violence have manifested in the life of Deacon James, and Khaw doesn’t pull punches there. Not only is segregation in full effect in the South, subtler racisms in the North also affect Deacon, and the fear he had to live in in the South isn’t easy to escape.

Khaw uses that to drive the plot; like LaValle in A Ballad for Black Tom, she is concerned with why oppressed and marginalised people might be driven to think the destruction of the world might not be so bad. A Song For Quiet combines the alienness of a Lovecraft story with the everyday horror of man’s inhumanity to man to make the reader, as much as the characters, rethink what would otherwise seem obvious; saving the world is a less easy choice when that world is determined to break you and destroy you. Khaw balances different perspectives and attitudes on this brilliantly, and the final resolution of A Song For Quiet is brilliant, sad, and lyrical all at once.

This is a very intense and personal story, and as such, would not work without strong characters to really make the reader feel the complexity. A Song For Quiet once again demonstrates that Khaw’s greatest strength is very quickly creating a character, and then making them complex and whole; Deacon is brilliantly realised as a black man with the tragedy of grief in his immediate past and permanently confronted by racism, while Ana’s scarred past of abuse and horror at distinctly human hands shows us a different view of hell. The relationship between the two is brilliantly realised and burns slowly into a mutual respect and understanding that Khaw writes with an excellently delicate touch.

Finally, we need to talk about plot. Khaw’s weakness in the past has been carrying a single plot through a whole work of this length, rather than making it feel bitty. In the case of A Song For Quiet, much like Hammers on Bone, though, this weakness is something she has wholeheartedly overcome. Different elements of the plot at first can look a little disparate but she draws them together with an amazing confidence and skill, to come to a very sharp point at the conclusion of the story, one aimed right at the heart with perfect skill.

I hope we continue to see this level of plotting from Khaw moving forward, just as we continue to see excellent characterisation from her; A Song For Quiet is yet another level up from one of this generation’s great new writers.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Cassandra Khaw is a friend.

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New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy

Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day – so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s’ suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching over the shoulders of four 11-year-olds – Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
Hogarth have been, since 2015, putting out retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays by notable modern authors; they started with Jeanette Winterson’s Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale; and have also published the magnificent Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, a truly great Tempest reworking; Vinegar Girl, Ann Tyler’s terrible Taming of the Shrew that doubles down on the misogyny of the original; and Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice retelling, Shylock Is My Name, which I’ve not read. Their latest is Tracy Chevalier’s reworking of Othello into a 1970s grade school…

Othello is a hard play to rework in a modern setting. It relies so much on what is not very obviously racist stereotyping, and also on racist attitudes towards its titular character; Chevalier, unlike Atwood, has therefore chosen a period setting, in this case 1970s affluent Washington, D.C., that makes the racism easy to portray – and a little more distant from the present. Osei is a new student in the school, son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and Chevalier uses the intensity of grade school – where relationships are made and broken in an hour, where feelings are raw and immature – to restage her Othello in the course of a single day.

There are drawbacks to this approach. Primarily, New Boy seems perpetually unsure how mature its sixth graders are; their claims to have had sex are obviously intended as overstatement, and yet the way Ian, in particular, is presented as sexually predatory, and the way the girls are presented as fully pubescent, seems to belong to somewhat older children. This tangles the plot, and drags the reader out repeatedly; setting the book with even slightly older children, by a few years, would have worked rather better. There is also an unexpected homophobic sideswipe; Chevalier isn’t wrong that these were the attitudes of the period but, since this is literally the only time queerness appears in New Boy, a half page of reported homophobia feels, to say the least, excessive.

The hardest part of New Boy to discuss is the plot. After all, it’s the plot of Othello. We know the plot; Chevalier didn’t invent the plot; she only translated it. So the question is, I suppose, is that translation good? And the answer is, it’s mixed. The sense of drama is incredibly strong, despite knowing how the story ends; the stakes feel high, even on a grade school playground, where duels to the death are reduced to fist fights. But incongruities – like Mimi’s silent compliance – feel more strained, and the credulity of Osei to Ian feels stranger and much less in character.

There’s also one significant flaw common to most approaches to Othello, and nothing to do with New Boy‘s setting: the characterisation of Ian, Chevalier’s Iago stand-in. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Ian is simply a bully; Chevalier doesn’t really go into it more than that, and even the sections from Ian’s perspective make one feel like he’s simply doing harm for the sake of doing harm, rather than for any more explicable or understandable reason, something that originates in the play but is painfully obvious when we get multiple pages of his point of view of events at a time here.

This is in marked contrast with Chevalier’s treatment with the rest of the cast of New Boy. Each of her other characters is treated sympathetically, from Osei and Dee, through Ian’s unwilling accomplice Mimi, to Casper, the golden boy who Ian uses to enact his plan to ruin Osei; they’re interesting, with compactly told but very full back stories and rich inner lives, that animate the story and plot such that we’re actually affected, anew, by a story we all know. Osei’s story is especially interesting, and serves as a hook for all sorts of other stories – his radical Black Panther-sympathising sister Sisi I would especially like to learn more about, but also what his father actually does as a diplomat moving around so much.

In the end, New Boy is a rather good retelling of Othello, suffering some of the flaws of the original and adding in more beside, while enhancing the characterisation of a number of backgrounded characters in Shakespeare’s work and with Chevalier much more sympathetic to the titular character. This isn’t at the Hagseed end of Hogarth’s set, but it’s much nearer it than the Vinegar Girl end.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.