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

Reader Votes

  • Readers Vote
  • 32

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller


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

Did you like this book?


Chicana writer Castillo (whose reputation until now has been mostly regional) brings a warm, sometimes biting but not bitter feminist consciousness to the wondrous, tragic, and engaging lives of a New Mexico mother and her four fated daughters. Poor Sofi! Abandoned by her gambler husband to raise four unusual girls who tend to rise from adversity only to find disaster. ``La Loca,'' dead at age three, comes back to life—but is unable to bear the smell of human beings; Esperanza succeeds as a TV anchorwoman—but is less successful with her exploitative lover and disappears during the Gulf War; promiscuous, barhopping Caridad—mutilated and left for dead—makes a miraculous recovery, but her life on earth will still be cut short by passion; and the seemingly self-controlled Fe is so efficient that ``even when she lost her mind [upon being jilted]...she did it without a second's hesitation.'' Sofi's life-solution is to found an organization M.O.M.A.S. (Mothers of Martyrs and Saints), while Castillo tries to solve the question of minority-writer aesthetics: Should a work of literature provide a mirror for marginalized identity? Should it celebrate and preserve threatened culture? Should it be politically progressive? Should the writer aim for art, social improvement, or simple entertainment? Castillo tries to do it all—and for the most part succeeds. Storytelling skills and humor allow Castillo to integrate essaylike folklore sections (herbal curing, saint carving, cooking)—while political material (community organizing, toxic chemicals, feminism, the Gulf War) is delivered with unabashed directness and usually disarming charm.

Pub Date: April 17, 1993

ISBN: 0-393-03490-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1993

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Collins invokes both Voltaire and Defoe here, and she forges an unlikely but sadly harmonic connection with both these...


There’s betrayal, depravity, pseudoscience, forbidden love, drug addiction, white supremacy, and, oh yes, a murder mystery with tightly wound knots to unravel.

The citizenry of 1826 London has worked itself into near apoplexy over the sensational trial of “The Mulatta Murderess,” aka Frances Langton, a Jamaican servant accused of brutally stabbing her white employers to death. Though caught on the night of the murders covered with blood, Frances cannot remember what happened and thus cannot say whether or not she is guilty. “For God’s sake, give me something I can save your neck with,” her lawyer pleads. And so Frannie, who, despite having been born into slavery, became adept at reading and writing, tries to find her own way to the truth the only way she can: By writing her life’s story from its beginnings on a West Indian plantation called Paradise whose master, John Langton, is a vicious sadist. He uses Frannie for sex and as a “scribe” taking notes on his hideous experiments into racial difference using skulls, blood, and even skin samples. After a fire destroys much of his plantation, Langton takes Frannie to London and makes her a gift to George Benham, an urbane scientist engaged in the same dubious race-science inquiries. Frannie’s hurt over her abandonment is soon dispelled by her fascination with Benham’s French-born wife, Marguerite, a captivating beauty whose lively wit and literary erudition barely conceal despondency that finds relief in bottles of laudanum. A bond forms between mistress and servant that swells and tightens into love, leading to a tempest of misunderstanding, deceit, jealousy, and, ultimately, death. Collins’ debut novel administers a bold and vibrant jolt to both the gothic and historical fiction genres, embracing racial and sexual subtexts that couldn’t or wouldn’t have been imagined by its long-ago practitioners. Her evocations of early-19th-century London and antebellum Jamaica are vivid and, at times, sensuously graphic. Most of all, she has created in her title character a complex, melancholy, and trenchantly observant protagonist; too conflicted in motivation, perhaps, to be considered a heroine but as dynamic and compelling as any character conceived by a Brontë sister.

Collins invokes both Voltaire and Defoe here, and she forges an unlikely but sadly harmonic connection with both these enlightenment heroes in her gripping, groundbreaking debut.

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-285189-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet