Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A More Diverse Universe Project

Or, two book reviews for the price of one.

Over at Book Lust, they're doing a blog tour to promote authors of color in speculative fiction. I neglected to sign up officially, but heck, I was interested and it seemed like a worthwhile project. So here we go.

The Alchemists of Kush

I had been meaning to read Minister Faust since I first heard an interview with him for Coyote Kings The Space Age Bachelor Pad, but when I went to buy it, I thought that maybe for something I was planning to review online, it was better to pick up something newer, so I wasn't talking about something he'd written years ago. I picked up The Alchemists of Kush without knowing much about it.

Specifically, I didn't know when I picked it up that it was a Young Adult novel.

The book alternates between two separate stories, labeled the Book of Then and the Book of Now. The Book of Then follows an orphaned boy wizard through a landscape of Egyptian myths and nightmares, while the Book of Now follows a young Half-Sudanese immigrant to the New World through his education by a neighbor who teaches him to fight, to think, to respect, and to take pride in his own heritage.

The language in this book is very accessible, which is both a pro and a con for me. I thought it worked against the Book of Then, where the inclusion of vernacular terms felt anachronistic, for all that they helped convey that the first person narrator was a child. The Book of Now made great use of language though, particularly in the first section where we meet our hero Rap (Raphael) and in some of the sections of freestyle rap. The text also has a habit of sentence fragments where the subject has been omitted- again, particularly when referring to the main character, which can be jarring, but it also makes the text moves faster, and perhaps more importantly, it sounds real and raw because of it.

The Book of Then took a while to catch my interest- basically until about a third of the way through when it ties itself firmly to the Osiris myth, both because that gave me something to tie it to and because it represents a stress point for the narrator's relationship with his enemy-turned-friend.

The Book of Now was alternately charming and frustrating, in the way teenage boys are alternately charming and frustrating. Rap and his friends are basically good kids who have lacked community, fathers, role models, and support, and it's put them in a very bad place very early on in the book. When they find themselves in the debt of a neighborhood shop keeper, their sincere attempts (more sincere on Rap's part, honestly) to do right by him put them on a path of growth and self-discovery. Their teacher has a very Pan-African, community-focused outlook, and this is woven through everything that he teaches the boys. If you're a reader who's coming into these ideas for the first time it's explained thoroughly and in a way I suspect will be both interesting and comprehensible. If you're an adult who's already familiar with some of the theory and practice, you may find yourself skimming forward. Be prepared as well for a LOT of name dropping. If you're not familiar with rap, jazz, black writers, black activists, or Pan-African terms, this book is going to give you itemized lists. The boys try to live up to ideals, and find themselves failing sometimes, sometimes succeeding, but always growing. Actually I find myself most charmed by the times they fail, because they've misunderstood or not taken some vital aspect of respect or self-reliance into account. It feels human, and they hurt so transparently that you can't not hurt with them.  

It's very nice, by the way, to have a book about blackness where white folk are a distant presence at best most all of the time. The legacy of slavery and colonialism are still very present in all the characters lives, and white artists and TV programs are mentioned (as well as Asian culture- the kids study Asian martial arts and one of the main characters has adopted the nom de guerre of Jackie Chan), but there aren't present white antagonists of the kids own age taunting them or trying to put them down. The book isn't about defining blackness in opposition to whiteness; it's about bringing to fruition the inner worth of a person, in a tradition that the characters trace to Africa (turning lead into gold, the alchemist metaphor that gives the book its title).  

I can think of several young men I would have nudged toward this book back when I was substitute teaching- the type of kids who push official school assigned books away because they can't find anything in them they can relate to, or who don't like to read because they don't think it looks tough. There are blood, fighting, and curse words in this book enough to make kids think they're getting away with something, and as stated earlier the text reads fast and without a lot of challenging construction or SAT words. It's also built around principles of discipline, community, self-respect, and self-expression that I think will resonate with a lot of young people. I'm a little old for this book personally, but if you have a teenager or young twenty-something who thinks he can't learn because he just doesn't have the smarts in him, and yet can rap an entire album from memory and work through any puzzle he's interested in in minutes, this is a good bet.

The Throne of the Crescent Moon

I have enjoyed a lot of Saladin Ahmed's short fiction (Hooves in the Hovel of Abdul Jameel is still my favorite), and so when I found out he was doing a novel set in a sort of Arabian Nights inspired fantasy, I was pretty jazzed about it. Even moreso when I'd read the short "Where Virtue Lives", which introduces two of the novel's main characters. I have a personal beef with this novel, but I'd like to go through and talk about it objectively before I get to that.

The Throne of the Crescent Moon follows near-retired ghul hunter and all-around sensualist Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, upon whom has recently been foisted a fun-sized religious fanatic apprentice who is as good with a sword as he isn't with chilling out and having a good time. When they find stronger ghuls than they've ever faced before and the last survivor of a murdered tribe- a girl with the power to shift into a divine lion form, it becomes apparent that they're facing something that may be beyond the scope of all of them.

This is a sword and sorcery adventure, and if that's not your thing, you won't like this book. The villains are inhuman and unspeakably evil (one of them has the best evil nick name I have ever seen bestowed to any character: "The Child Scythe"), and the heroes are, for the most part, pretty good. Honestly, for the genre they're practically saintly. The author has clearly read Leiber, but is pleasantly refraining from trying to write Leiber. The action and the magic are fast and cinematic- the mechanics aren't labored over, but there are rules and costs. There is a section in the middle where the book does slow unfortunately while the characters go to ground to wait and recuperate.

This book belongs to Adoulla, and he's a fun, well drawn character, even if he wants to spend a lot of time passing gas and licking nuts off his fingers. One of my favorite things about him is despite the fact that he's something of a holy man and a scholar now, he came up as a bare-knuckles street fighter.  He has a past, and he's a character who has pleasantly learned most, if not all of the lessons that past had to teach him. He doesn't have a lot of growing left to do- instead he has a struggle of holding on as he gets older, as there's a natural tendency to become complacent, as his body stops being able to do everything he thinks it should.

The other characters don't do as well by comparison. Raseed the strict dervish apprentice has a fun relationship with the more laid back Adoulla, but it's overshadowed by his awkward romantic interest with Zamia, who is just as stiffly reluctant to acknowledge it because both of them have duties and commitments. There are also a husband and wife team who are interesting characters, but whose relation to the plot keeps them off to the side.

Having been to Cairo, I love Dhamsawaat all the more for how very Cairo it is (there's even a specific caliph I think the city's ruler is based on, but I can't remember his name for the life of me). It's a big, messy, smelly, corrupt, magical, wonderful city, and I think people who have lived anywhere big will appreciate it. The author's taken a lot of pains to make sure the caliphate empires are represented, to the extent that the married couple presented come from deep in Nubia and far away western China (which is where the original Aladdin story takes place, if you're interested in trivia). People's cultures and philosophies are diverse, and it's the kind of multicultural setting that shows off the diversity that was actually present in the Islamic golden age.

And to my beef.

Raseed bas Raseed.

I'm a girl who has indulged in more than a little dungeons and dragons, and I spent a long time playing a paladin. Raseed bas Raseed was the character I was most looking forward to- an uncompromising holy warrior whose commitment to living up to the letter of his faith puts him at odds with his friends. I was hoping to see him grapple with trying to dutifully obey the man who's been given charge of him while not violating the promises he's made to his order. I wanted to see him refuse to do things that would help the people around him, but would violate his sense of right. I wanted him to be stubborn, and pig-headed, and obstructionist. The short set in Dharmsawaat convinced me that Mr. Ahmed could write that sympathetically, without making Raseed a one-dimensional cardboard crazy, but also without sacrificing the actual rigidity of his principles.

I feel like there were times where this conflict could have happened and happened big, but the author avoided doing it. I guess in part this is because this is Adoulla's book and not Raseed's, but there's a time or two where Raseed is very conveniently not able to find out about something objectionable another character had done, and by the end of the book those chickens have not come home to roost. It never comes to a head. It's possible that's being saved for later in the series, but it feels more like the conflict I was most hoping to see is just not one the author is as interested in writing (or possibly one the author feels like will end the partnership).

I feel like this one is more a personal objection than anything. I had a specific expectation I was really excited about, and it wasn't realized.

It's a good little adventure book overall. I'm just a little grumpy about not getting what I want.

If the nihilism and moral relativity of Martin is not what you want, this is fun fair in a location that is thankfully not just the Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off. 

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