“Why are these people trying to teach the world about Taoscal magic?” The answers to this question, and many others, will be...



Byzantine intrigue and melodramatic excess abound to an almost unprecedented degree in this fascinating, inordinately busy new novel from the New Zealand author (The Vintner’s Luck, 1999).

Brief summary won’t help much, but here goes. In 2022, medical therapist Carme Risk is herself undergoing “narrative therapy,” attempting to comprehend the mysterious figure of her father, an apparently ageless and possibly supernatural being known variously as Abra Cadaver, “Ido Idea,” and Walter Risk. An extended flashback takes us to Eden (doubtless in new Zealand), where a foundling who’s autistic, or a genius, or both (“something between feral child and street kid”) is adopted by bachelor loner Carlin Cadaver. The charismatic Abra fathers a daughter, whose later life is chronicled in reports of her therapy sessions and in scenes set (out of chronological order) in Eden, the fictional South American republic of Lequama, and a southern California campus. The restlessness and volatility of Knox’s characters find objective correlatives in the complex aftereffects of Lequama’s bloody revolution (especially as experienced by its Taoscal ethnic majority, as rebel forces rise to and falls from power), and in the tangled interrelations of a cast of nearly 50 important characters, including an ostensibly reformed prostitute and her rebellious daughter, a bisexual male military hero and an Amazonian woman officer, a martyred poet, a morose Newfoundland dog, and a desiccated billionaire who schemes to live forever. Reading this cheerfully overstuffed novel is rather like watching an insanely lavish “epic” film in which dozens of actors play vividly imagined eccentrics: the spectacle is rousing, but the brain-weary viewer despairs of connecting logically together everything that keeps flying past him. Nevertheless, clues are provided by Knox’s brilliantly chosen title (from Yeats’s line “The years like great black oxen tread the world . . . ”) and by subtly placed allusions to Patrick White’s utterly mad novel of hermaphroditism and psychic transference, The Twyborn Affair.

“Why are these people trying to teach the world about Taoscal magic?” The answers to this question, and many others, will be found by the diligent—and patient—reader, somewhere within the sprawling, infuriating pages of Black Oxen.

Pub Date: July 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-374-11405-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2001

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.


Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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

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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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