A violent, emotional story that will resonate with readers who are sensitive to the growing tension among science, religion,...

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Trees for the Forest

This ambitious debut novel unites themes of political and religious zealotry with mysticism in a near-future setting.

Biologist Psyche Hershenbaum begins the story adamantly opposed to organized religion. When her mother dies alone in a superstorm that ravages New York City, Psyche re-examines her life as a scientist for a government-funded laboratory, which she suspects is using her work to create an environmental sanctuary for America’s wealthy and powerful. Her suspicions prove correct, so she resolves to use her scientific knowledge—and her boyfriend Ira’s computer hacking skills—to create a sanctuary of her own. On a hilltop in the Pacific Northwest, she and Ira build a community that quickly grows into a stable, science-based society with her as leader. Meanwhile, the country’s remaining political and religious leaders retreat into the belly of a giant, genetically engineered amoebalike creature that acts as a living bio-dome. They’ve also engineered human-lizard hybrids to perform slave labor. The dome’s authoritarian regime quickly devolves into a pseudo-Christian religious cult, rife with corruption and sexual assault, while the forest-dwelling scientists embrace a peaceful kind of spirituality that resembles shamanism. A violent clash decides Psyche’s fate and that of her community. At first read, Siegel’s story of a young biologist struggling to survive in a United States decimated by disease and climate change comes across as typical post-apocalyptic fare. Had it been written more recently, its strong stance on the perils of political and religious extremism could have been seen as a reaction to today’s headlines. But the author, an artist and “psychic astrologer,” says that she wrote the story in the 1990s and let it languish in a drawer for a decade. Its deep look at issues of morality and corruption will particularly appeal to disillusioned young people in the 21st century. In one truly remarkable turn, the once-agnostic Psyche and others witness actual miracles that seem to confirm the existence of an afterlife—a move that turns some conventional sci-fi and fantasy tropes upside-down.

A violent, emotional story that will resonate with readers who are sensitive to the growing tension among science, religion, and politics today.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-5005-0548-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

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THE CITY WE BECAME

This extremely urban fantasy, a love/hate song to and rallying cry for the author’s home of New York, expands her story “The City, Born Great” (from How Long ’Til Black Future Month, 2018).

When a great city reaches the point when it's ready to come to life, it chooses a human avatar, who guides the city through its birthing and contends with an extradimensional Enemy who seeks to strike at this vulnerable moment. Now, it is New York City’s time to be born, but its avatar is too weakened by the battle to complete the process. So each of the individual boroughs instantiates its own avatar to continue the fight. Manhattan is a multiracial grad student new to the city with a secret violent past that he can no longer quite remember; Brooklyn is an African American rap star–turned–lawyer and city councilwoman; Queens is an Indian math whiz here on a visa; the Bronx is a tough Lenape woman who runs a nonprofit art center; and Staten Island is a frightened and insular Irish American woman who wants nothing to do with the other four. Can these boroughs successfully awaken and heal their primary avatar and repel the invading white tentacles of the Enemy? The novel is a bold calling out of the racial tensions dividing not only New York City, but the U.S. as a whole; it underscores that people of color are an integral part of the city’s tapestry even if some white people prefer to treat them as interlopers. It's no accident that the only white avatar is the racist woman representing Staten Island, nor that the Enemy appears as a Woman in White who employs the forces of racism and gentrification in her invasion; her true self is openly inspired by the tropes of the xenophobic author H.P. Lovecraft. Although the story is a fantasy, many aspects of the plot draw on contemporary incidents. In the real world, white people don’t need a nudge from an eldritch abomination to call down a violent police reaction on people of color innocently conducting their daily lives, and just as in the book, third parties are fraudulently transferring property deeds from African American homeowners in Brooklyn, and gentrification forces out the people who made the neighborhood attractive in the first place. In the face of these behaviors, whataboutism, #BothSides, and #NotAllWhitePeople are feeble arguments.

Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-50984-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Orbit

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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