A memorable cast of animals leads a tale with a strong environmental message.

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SHADOWSHINE

AN ANIMAL ADVENTURE

In Armstrong’s debut fantasy, a possum undergoes a harrowing journey to get help when savage bipeds threaten the existence of forest creatures.

Zak became an orphan when, as a baby possum, he fell from his mother’s pouch. As a family of gray squirrels adopted him, Zak is bilingual, able to speak “the Rodent language” incomprehensible to most “forest-folk,” consisting of the varied species who thrive in a dense forest. In the forest, there’s been concern about bipedal creatures called sans-pelages (roughly translatable as “without animals’ fur coats”), as they make campfires. But a leader named Mungo, one particularly sadistic sans-pelage, has been attacking other sans-pelages with fire. A possum named Zak offers to go on a journey northward to learn how other regions have dealt with these problems. He faces many potential threats other than predators, including glaciers and raging river currents. Things turn even more burdensome when it’s fairly evident that Zak is lost. Fortunately, he stumbles upon a few four-legged allies, from Elbon the skunk to Sark the mammoth-esque mastodon. Meanwhile, Zak’s bobcat pal, Sena, and others back at home may be in danger as Mungo continues to lead his army of warriors down an infernal path. Before long, the forest-folk will have to take a stand against the sans-pelages to save their homes. Despite the variety of predominantly furry characters, Armstrong’s novel is not for children, as there are a number of bloody confrontations. Nevertheless, this environmental story often manages to be lighthearted. Zak, for example, is a self-described poet with a sophisticated manner of speech and an unusual preferred exclamation: “Incomprehensible!” A sharp focus on the forest-folk wisely keeps the land, the time period, and the humans relatively vague. At the same time, the narrative periodically slips into the otherworldly, with characters interacting with spirits in the Shadow World. Armstrong expressively details the animals’ perspectives: an upland sandpiper who witnesses “an unbalanced sky” or Zak’s first seeing Sark upside down as he dangles from the mastodon’s trunk.

A memorable cast of animals leads a tale with a strong environmental message.

Pub Date: May 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-77183-460-5

Page Count: 284

Publisher: Guernica World Editions

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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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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