Thoroughly engrossing historical fiction with dynamic characterizations.

KAJA

10,000 YEARS AGO

A young man finds himself stranded on foreign soil, where he encounters friendly townspeople and a hostile wizard, in this Neolithic-set debut novel.

After miraculously surviving a shipwreck, 17-year-old Kaja washes ashore on an apparently uninhabited island. He forages for food and later is surprised to see a young boy. This boy spots Kaja as well and sprints to his town, Ash, to tell folks what he’s seen. Though he describes Kaja as a “wild man” with matted, filthy hair—and dressed in rags—the boy’s friends Regis and Dogen discover a sickly figure who’s barely alive. They take him to Regis’ herbalist mother, Hypp, who nurses Kaja back to health. People in Ash and the neighboring settlements quickly accept the teen, despite his differences—they’re all White while Kaja’s skin is darker and adorned in tattoos. Kaja ultimately relays his story to the townsfolk (and readers): In his native land, men calling themselves Thurgans had enslaved him and his people, the Rishi. He and others escaped in a ship, but it seems only Kaja survived the ensuing wreck. Sadly, not everyone in Ash is amiable; the openly antagonistic wizard Sekh is convinced Kaja is a wizard, too, harboring “secret knowledge.” The villain plans on tormenting Kaja, including furtively drugging him, until the teen reveals his secret, which Sekh believes to be some form of magic. Even as Kaja insists he has no secret, the teen will have to complete a “mission” for Sekh if he wants the wizard to leave him in peace.

While offering an abundance of characters, Lombardo maintains a relatively simple plot. Language, for example, is rarely specified, and the dialogue appears in English like the narrative. At the same time, there’s a discernible, well-incorporated theme of discrimination, especially racial. Not only has Kaja fled slavery by the Thurgans, who are White, but some on the island deem him a “freak” or explicitly reference his cultural tattoos by calling him a “tattooed freak.” The protagonist is an appealing teen entirely out of his element; he makes musical instruments, and, as the Rishi have only tools, he’s shocked by the myriad weapons the townspeople sport. Among the extensive cast, Hypp shines brightest; she’s essentially Kaja’s surrogate mother. The compassionate woman soon considers him a son. The author’s prose is primarily unadorned but concise, with few notable instances of contemporary words or expressions. Narrative descriptions are eloquent, even when Kaja feels the effects of a hallucinogenic: “The mushroom was the perfect conduit, most perfectly enjoyed in solitude where the endless distractions and demands of society and other people were irrelevant. All that mattered to him on the trail, slowly advancing to nowhere, was the sight of a flower, or a dragonfly, or the light in the air.” Kaja’s story continues to intrigue into the final act, as he, with help from friends, tries evading Sekh’s frightening obsession. Similarly, there’s the fact that Kaja indeed has a secret, an unforgettable one that he doesn’t fully explain until much later in the book.

Thoroughly engrossing historical fiction with dynamic characterizations.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2020

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A tale that’s at once familiar and full of odd and unexpected twists—vintage King, in other words.

FAIRY TALE

Narnia on the Penobscot: a grand, and naturally strange, entertainment from the ever prolific King.

What’s a person to do when sheltering from Covid? In King’s case, write something to entertain himself while reflecting on what was going on in the world outside—ravaged cities, contentious politics, uncertainty. King’s yarn begins in a world that’s recognizably ours, and with a familiar trope: A young woman, out to buy fried chicken, is mashed by a runaway plumber’s van, sending her husband into an alcoholic tailspin and her son into a preadolescent funk, driven “bugfuck” by a father who “was always trying to apologize.” The son makes good by rescuing an elderly neighbor who’s fallen off a ladder, though he protests that the man’s equally elderly German shepherd, Radar, was the true hero. Whatever the case, Mr. Bowditch has an improbable trove of gold in his Bates Motel of a home, and its origin seems to lie in a shed behind the house, one that Mr. Bowditch warns the boy away from: “ ‘Don’t go in there,’ he said. ‘You may in time, but for now don’t even think of it.’ ” It’s not Pennywise who awaits in the underworld behind the shed door, but there’s plenty that’s weird and unexpected, including a woman, Dora, whose “skin was slate gray and her face was cruelly deformed,” and a whole bunch of people—well, sort of people, anyway—who’d like nothing better than to bring their special brand of evil up to our world’s surface. King’s young protagonist, Charlie Reade, is resourceful beyond his years, but it helps that the old dog gains some of its youthful vigor in the depths below. King delivers a more or less traditional fable that includes a knowing nod: “I think I know what you want,” Charlie tells the reader, "and now you have it”—namely, a happy ending but with a suitably sardonic wink.

A tale that’s at once familiar and full of odd and unexpected twists—vintage King, in other words.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-66800-217-9

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2022

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A deceptively quiet beginning rockets to a thrilling finish, preparing us for the next volume’s undoubtedly explosive finale.

NONA THE NINTH

The third installment of a necromantic science-fantasy series continues working at puzzles of identity and the meaning of loyalty.

Previously (Gideon the Ninth, 2019; Harrow the Ninth, 2020), sullen but brilliant necromancer Harrowhark consumed the soul of Gideon, her foulmouthed cavalier, to become a Lyctor, a semi-immortal officer in the Emperor Undying’s court. In a desperate attempt to preserve Gideon’s identity, Harrow deliberately erased the other woman from her memories, leaving herself confused to the point of delusion, unable to access her full powers, and vulnerable to enemies both within and without the Emperor’s court. This novel introduces Nona, a sweet but extraordinarily naïve young woman who appears to be in Harrowhark’s body but with Gideon’s golden eyes, lacking both necromantic abilities and any memories prior to six months ago. Nona’s been happy despite her precarious living situation in a war-torn city threatened by the necromantic Houses and their foe, the Blood of Eden. Unfortunately, what fragile peace she has cannot last, and everything depends on recovering Nona’s memories and returning to Harrowhark’s home in the Ninth House, there to finally release the deadly threat lurking in the Locked Tomb. But who is Nona, really: Harrowhark, Gideon, a blend of both young women…or someone else entirely? (The reader will figure it out long before the characters do.) Meanwhile, the Emperor and Harrowhark meet in dreams, where he recounts events of 10,000 years ago, when, as a newly fledged necromancer, his conflict with the corrupt trillionaires who planned to escape the dying Earth and leave the remaining billions to perish led to nuclear apocalypse. It’s pretty gutsy of Muir to write two books in a row about amnesiac characters, particularly when it may very well be the same character experiencing a different form of amnesia in each. This work initially reads like a strange interlude from the series, devoted to Nona’s odd but essentially quotidian routine in the midst of war, riot, and general chaos. But the story gradually gathers speed, and it’s all in service to a deeper plot. It is unfortunate that the demands of that plot mean we’ve gotten a considerably smaller dose of Gideon’s defiantly crude, riotously flouncy behavior in the two books subsequent to the one which bears her name.

A deceptively quiet beginning rockets to a thrilling finish, preparing us for the next volume’s undoubtedly explosive finale.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-25-085411-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Tordotcom

Review Posted Online: July 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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