"A riveting postmodern world infused with myth, cruelty, and heavy doses of magic."– Kirkus Reviews
An exploration of homelessness by the author of Perfect Peace (2010) and The Sacred Place (2007).
Black has said that he wants to “write literature which celebrates the African American presence in America and teaches the world how to be more human.” That this is a laudable goal is obvious to anyone who understands the chronic underrepresentation of minority voices in American letters. And it’s hard to fault someone whose aim as a novelist is to foster empathy. But a worthy objective doesn’t necessarily make for compelling fiction, and this novel is entirely overwhelmed by Black’s mission. Protagonist Lazarus Love III leaves a comfortable life—as well as a wife and two children—to pursue a more authentic existence as a man unencumbered by material desires. He creates a new family with people whose homelessness is involuntary, individuals with sad and difficult histories who are drawn to Lazarus’ charisma and pride. And then a woman they call The Comforter joins their fragile community, speaking of trials to come. Her words prove true when Lazarus is accused of murder. Each member of his tribe works to prove him innocent even though it means revisiting pasts they had hoped to leave behind. In terms of style, Black has created here a kind of fleshed-out symbolic mode, a mixture of realism and allegory that succeeds as neither. Characterization is both flat and overly detailed—lots of exposition but no real depth. Lazarus’ story features a confusing timeline and conflicting descriptions of how he ended up on the street, which makes it difficult to understand him. And a plot built entirely of coincidences might work for a fable or a fairy tale, but it strains credulity here. None of this means, however, that there is no audience for this novel. Readers who look for uplift and inspiration in their fiction will find both here.
Good intentions, but that’s about it.
The third book in Black’s (The Death of Magic, 2013, etc.) epic urban fantasy series about a world of magic turned upside down.
This installment in the Saga of the New Gods sees a number of characters from prior books in ever more dire circumstances. In Book 1, a group of friends unleashed the mayhem of Dungeons and Dragons onto the real world; that mayhem continued and expanded in Book 2. This volume sees a deeper descent into a world populated by magical figures: nymphs (who “did not, in fact, live on sex”), Thor, a six-legged mutant cat named Mr. Mephistopheles, and more. There’s also an encroaching darkness known as the Abyss, home of the Dark Lord and other nefarious entities. Failure, as one character explains, means “all the world will be swallowed up in chaos and darkness for all eternity.” Thanks to the influx of magic, once-normal people have traded in their old personalities for fantastical ones, such as Dr. Mathias Dent, a medical researcher from prior books who now heads the Dark Lord’s research teams. The book takes readers to mythical, gory, and downright strange places. It’s frequently graphic—“The disgusting sound of crunching bones, and the wafting smell of blood from the other diner in his office, nearly ended his evening meal with his partially digested lunch all over his desk”—and always magical: “Magical energies crackled along his body, spitting and arcing out and to the ground.” There’s no shortage of novel creations, though some details may prove too over-the-top even for fantasy die-hards, as with Mr. Mephistopheles, who, once an alley cat, becomes “a great six-legged cat with two long whip-like tentacles that came out from his shoulders.” Dialogue can likewise seem a bit overcooked on occasion—“No, NO, NOOOO!!”—but fans of darker worlds à la Terry Brooks are likely to find portions to enjoy.
Imaginative and vicious, overflowing with sinister
creations and a monumental struggle.
When you go back home, can you really put the ghosts to rest? Can you at least save some lost souls?
In Black’s (Perfect Peace, 2010) sequel to his debut novel, They Tell Me of a Home (2005), Dr. Thomas L. Tyson (TL) returns home less than an hour after leaving. Back in Swamp Creek, Ark., TL is faced with several mysteries and challenges. Distraught over his sister’s untimely death, he worries about the role his adoptive mother, Marion, may have played in Sister’s death. Saddened by the death of his birth mother, Ms. Swinton, he wants to prove himself by taking over Ms. Swinton’s role as the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Marion challenges him to become a real man and determine his own fate, but TL must first rid himself of ties that pull him away from Swamp Creek, namely his neglected girlfriend back in New York and his best friend, George, who is desperately in love with him—and perhaps TL is in love with George, too. The town misfit Cliffesteen offers TL another mystery to solve: What happened to her Aunt Easter, a woman the townsfolk feared as magical? Once established as the new schoolteacher, TL accepts the responsibilities of not only educating the children of Swamp Creek, but also of rescuing one particular young boy from his abusive and sexually bigoted father. Further complicating matters, TL is hallucinating a city of gold marked by 12 gates, and Cliffesteen claims Sister is there. So many plot strands quickly overwhelm Black’s novel. Interspersed chapters in Sister’s otherworldly voice attempt to explain God’s plan for TL, yet not even Sister resolves the mysteries presented here.
This novel could have been a magical tale of spiritual discovery, yet it buckles under the weight of its own complexity.
The author returns to the Arkansas setting of They Tell Me of a Home (2005).
It’s 1941, and Gustavus and Emma Jean Peace have just had their seventh child. Gus had hoped to be through having babies. Emma Jean—disappointed with six boys—is determined to try one last time for a girl. When God doesn’t give her a daughter, she decides to make one herself. Naming the new baby “Perfect” and blackmailing the midwife to aid her in her desperate deception, Emma Jean announces the birth of a girl. For eight years, Emma Jean outfits her youngest child in pretty dresses, gives her all the indulgences she longed for in her own blighted girlhood and hides the truth from everyone—even herself. But when the truth comes out, Emma Jean is a pariah and her most-treasured child becomes a freak. It’s hard to know quite what to make of this impassioned, imperfect novel. While another writer might have chosen to complement the sensationalism of his scenario with a tempered style, Black narrates his tale in the key of melodrama. He devotes a considerable number of pages to Emma Jean’s experience as the unloved, darker (and therefore ugly) daughter, but since no amount of back story can justify Emma-Jean’s actions, these passages become redundant. And, most crucially, Black builds toward the point when Perfect discovers that she’s a boy, but seems confused about what to do with his character after this astonishing revelation. At the same time, the author offers a nuanced portrait of an insular community’s capacity to absorb difference, and it’s a cold reader who will be unmoved by his depictions.
Original and earnest, informed both by human limitation and human potential.
The Kansas City author’s second novel (They Tell Me of a Home, 2005) is based on the story of Emmett Till, a northern black boy who in 1955 “disrespected” a southern white woman, and paid for his impudence with his life.
When teenaged Clement—who’s visiting his mother’s sharecropper relatives, the Johnsons, in Money, Miss.—sasses a lady store clerk, Clement’s cousins fear the worst—as does their family’s stoical patriarch Jeremiah, who bears into old age the scars of a painful legacy of oppression, rape, murder and suicide. In a melodramatic narrative hamstrung by numerous flashbacks, racist monster Sheriff Billy Ray Cuthbert assembles a posse and “avenges” Clement’s offense. Jeremiah calls a “town meetin’ ” in his barn, and he organizes local black families into an “army” that challenges their white oppressors, aided by the (very strange) efforts of guilty white liberal Edgar Rosenthal, who—as an almost unbelievably awkward subplot reveals—means to atone for having wronged a black fellow college student decades ago. The “army” marches into Money, faces down the town’s white populace and, in an exceedingly lame climactic scene, receives the demanded “apology,” then leaves, persuaded “that the war was not over, but…also, now, that they could win.” The book is a sermon, weakened by theme-driven editorializing (e.g., “Clement entered the General Store with an entitlement unknown to Mississippi Negroes in 1955”). The (understandably) righteous anger is swollen beyond credibility by spasms of lurid violence and feverish fantasies of racial war. Even the most sympathetic reader will be turned off by Black’s appetite for overkill.
Shrill, sententious and maudlin. If you want to read a dramatic and persuasive retelling of Emmett Till’s tragic story, you’d do better to go to the history books.
An urbane black scholar feels the pull of his country home, in this debut novel.
Tommy Lee (T.L.) Tyson grew up in Swamp Creek, Ark., a small country town where black people scrape together a living from the fields, gather at the Meeting Tree and worship in a small cottage church on Sundays. As a brainy, ambitious kid, T.L. chafed against what seemed to him like Swamp Creek’s backward ways and rebelled against his father’s heavy-handed, “spare the rod and spoil the child” parenting. At 17, he left town for college, then went on to complete a doctorate in African-American studies. Yet after ten years away, T.L. hears the persistent siren call of his hometown and decides to return, not knowing exactly what he needs to figure out. When he arrives during a hot, sticky Arkansas summer, familiar faces and sights reconnect him to long-buried inner dilemmas about his place in the world and in his family. Meanwhile, T.L finds a new and troubling mystery. His beloved sister has died during his absence, and no one will tell him the cause of her death. Over the course of a week, T.L. tries to make sense of the tragedy, of his childhood and of his family’s folk culture. The narrative has a nice rhythm and warmth as old wrongs are righted, strange secrets are unburied and T.L. discovers long-hidden secrets about his identity. He begins to make peace with his roots, but will he stay, or will he leave home again? Some premises don’t quite get off the ground here, but the story nevertheless gains a nice lift around the middle, and soars home to a dramatic conclusion.
Heartwarming, if not always believable.
From author Black (Be Careful What You Wish For, 2013, etc.) comes the second installment in an urban-fantasy series about a group of young people with magical powers.
A group of college students has gone from unleashing the magic of Dungeons and Dragons into the world to dealing with the resulting chaos. After a wild adventure in Book 1 involving a misplaced wish, unrelenting supernatural changes, and the federal government, Book 2 finds the same main characters in an altered landscape. Though their magical abilities have matured, the world around them has become even more barbaric. In an area around New Orleans, there are monsters in the streets eating each other. One character observes, “We did this, you know….I thought everything would be better with magic, and it could have been, but it’s not.” The reader soon learns that this is an understatement. From a group of Minotaurs raping an elf girl to the torture of a cat named Mr. Mephistopheles, the new world is a vicious one indeed. How will characters like Michelle, “with blue fire for eyes and mouth,” and “Mage Lord” Tim respond to a land in which many regular people have been turned into monsters and a shadow begins to spread over the nation? Combining sources as diverse as the World of Warcraft and Norse legends, the novel blends many fantastical creatures and possibilities. Every bit as violent as the first book in the series (“The poor people were raped repeatedly until—battered and bloody—they joined their friends and relatives on the spits”), it’s not a narrative for the meek. Part fantasy adventure, part post-apocalyptic future, this volume keeps the reader guessing in a world full of potential. Though portions of dialogue are mundane (“Fine, you can have it; we will find someplace else,” a goblin comments after he and his cohorts are asked to leave a school gym), the story as a whole is creative, dark, and entertaining.
A riveting postmodern world infused with myth, cruelty, and heavy doses of magic.