This week: Colson Whitehead's new novel, plus George Takei's new graphic memoir.
In this exquisitely crafted tale, two special agents from competing factions forge an unexpected relationship through messages left behind as they wage a secret war across space and time. Red, who represents a society dominated by technology and artificial intelligences, and Blue, the product of a biological mass consciousness, must never—can never—meet, even as they work to secure the future for their masters. Instead, they communicate in hundreds of different ways, their words hidden beneath layers of subtlety and deception, in direct defiance of every rule they’ve ever followed. As taunts and challenges gradually give way to endearments and secrets, the two women must determine their true roles in the unending time war. Part epistolary romance, part mind-blowing science fiction adventure, this dazzling story unfolds bit by bit, revealing layers of meaning as it plays with cause and effect, wildly imaginative technologies, and increasingly intricate wordplay. El-Mohtar (The Honey Month) and Gladstone (the Craft Sequence) pack their narrative full of fanciful ideas and poignant moments, weaving a tapestry stretching across the millennia and through multiple realities that’s anchored with raw emotion and a genuine sense of wonder. This short novel warrants multiple readings to fully unlock its complexities.
This reissue of Elgin’s 1984 classic, a call to arms about the power of language in an oppressive society, is a welcome reminder of the feminist legacies of science fiction. In the 22nd century, following the repeal of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, a new society has formed in which women must be supervised by male citizens. Women’s only value now lies in their abilities to breed and to translate the many languages used in the intergalactic economy. Nazareth Adiness, the most talented linguist of her family, has spent her life translating and supervising children’s language education. At last she is allowed to move to the Barren House, where women past childbearing years go to die. Upon her arrival, Nazareth learns that the women have been using Nazareth’s own ideas to build a women’s language called Láadan that will lay the foundations of a revolution. Elgin (1936–2015) held a doctorate in linguistics and published a Láadan grammar and dictionary alongside her novel and its sequels; the depth of her knowledge is evident, but never gets in the way of the story. She explores the power of speech, agency, and subversion in a work that is as gripping, troubling, and meaningful today as it has ever been.
Bestseller Greaney (the Gray Man series) and Rawlings, a Marine lieutenant colonel, closely follow more than a score of characters in this outstanding near-future military action thriller. Several years after the Russians lose control of a rare earth mine in Kenya, Col. Yuri Borbikov, the Russian special forces commander who was in charge of the mine, draws up a plan, Operation Red Metal. Borbikov proposes a Russian raid into Europe to destroy America’s Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, and a simultaneous attack to retake the mine. The Russian president approves, and Red Metal is on. The various battles—fought on land, sea, and in the air—are exciting, realistic, and technically detailed, complete with the high emotions experienced by the combatants. As in the best of this genre, there are no cartoon villains, just dedicated warriors who are given a mission and are determined to carry it out. This is powerful material, required reading for anyone interested in modern warfare.
Set in the Oklahoma countryside, where it’s possible to track a car by the cloud of dust it’s raising on a gravel road, Lackey’s excellent sequel to 2017’s Nail’s Crossing charts the investigations of two different but equally able cops. Clever and resourceful Bill Maytubby, a Chickasaw Lighthorse police sergeant, is after the gang that shot down his boyhood pal while robbing a casino. Meanwhile, blunt and roughhewn Hannah Bond, a Johnson County deputy, aches to solve the brutal killing of her elderly friend Alice Lang. As the two separately gather evidence by watching the comings and goings of suspicious people, they discover that both murders were committed by the same gang of drug and gun runners, people who will happily kill anyone they catch snooping around. The accumulation of detail may be a bit hard to follow for those who don’t share the officers’ personal commitment, but they are convincingly thorough, and the two of them—along with Bill’s lover, Jill Milton—are likable, formidable characters. This one’s definitely a keeper.
A young Brazilian-British woman finds her footing between cultures in Rodrigues Fowler’s formally ambitious, captivating debut. Raised in the 1990s in South London by a Brazilian mother and English father, the unnamed protagonist catapults from teenage rebellion into first love with Leo, an older classmate, leading to a passionate but problematic relationship. A budding friendship with another woman (also unnamed) at a prestigious British university fractures over a trip to Brazil, where the English friend’s preconceptions are revealed; she “looks pouting sad because nowhere is cheap enough.” By 2014, the narrator has returned to her parents’ home and struggles with a health problem while working as a researcher for TV programs about Brazil. Reflecting on her past as an “eternal guest” in Brazil, and on the experiences of her maternal aunt and grandmother, the narrator opens up to the possibilities of renewed friendships and new love, discovering a self that is articulated not through the projections of others but through her own actions, as when she dances with cousins on a beach. Moving back and forth through time, alternating short prose sections with poems and pauses, and at times switching to Portuguese as the narrator “finds the other words,” Rodrigues Fowler writes frankly and imaginatively of the felicities and difficulties of adolescence and family ties, and of learning “to wrap your life around another person’s life.” This is a powerful debut.
Four Men Shaking: Searching for Sanity with Samuel Beckett, Norman Mailer, and My Perfect Zen Teacher
In his enthralling memoir, novelist and Zen Buddhist Shainberg (Ambivalent Zen) explores questions about writing, spiritual practice, and brain damage through his personal relationships with Norman Mailer, Samuel Beckett, and Kyudo Nakagawa. Shainberg points to an early turning point in his life when, during a session with a therapist, he was freed of his impulses and became able to accept the present moment with equanimity. After this experience, he writes of how he conceived of the main tension in his life: the twofold desires to create form out of emptiness, and to see emptiness as an underlying form. Shainberg spends most of the book teasing apart this tension. In his estimation, Mailer and Beckett responded to this tension differently: Mailer embraced form, struggling to make sense of the vicissitudes of the everyday; Beckett embraced emptiness, lingering in the void of meaninglessness. Lurking in the middle between form and emptiness—and calling Shainberg to return to the present moment—is the Zen teacher Kyudo Nakagawa. Shainberg’s enlightening memoir about three transformative relationships is accessible, deceptively simple, and wise.
Takei, best known for his role on Star Trek, relates the story of his family’s internment during WWII in this moving and layered graphic memoir. Japanese-Americans were classified as “Alien Enemy” after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and were forced to relocate to camps when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Takei, who was five years old, along with his father, mother, and young siblings, was held from 1942 through January 1946, first at Camp Rohwer, Arkansas, and then later at Tule Lake, Calif.. The manga-influenced art by Harmony Becker juxtaposes Takei’s childlike wonder over the “adventure” of the train trip with the stress and worry carried by his parents. As much as possible, Takei’s parents took pains to ensure their children were shielded from the reality of their situation, though Takei still relates traumas and humiliations (and a few funny stories). It was only years later, during talks with his father, that Takei was given insight into his past. As a teenager, Takei lashes out in anger over the treatment of Japanese-Americans, and his father calmly states that “despite all that we’ve experienced, our Democracy is still the best in the world.” Takei takes that lesson to heart in a stirring speech he delivers at the FDR Library on the 75th anniversary of the Day of Remembrance. Using parallel scenes from Trump’s travel ban, in the closing pages, Takei challenges Americans to look to how past humanitarian injustices speak to current political debates. Giving a personal view into difficult history, Takei’s work is a testament to hope and tenacity in the face of adversity.
“As it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it,” Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) writes in the present-day prologue to this story, in which construction workers have dug up what appears to be a secret graveyard on the grounds of the juvenile reform school the Nickel Academy in Jackson County, Fla. Five decades prior, Elwood Curtis, a deeply principled, straight-A high school student from Tallahassee, Fla., who partakes in civil rights demonstrations against Jim Crow laws and was about to start taking classes at the local black college before being erroneously detained by police, has just arrived at Nickel. Elwood finds that, at odds with Nickel’s upstanding reputation in the community, the staff is callous and corrupt, and the boys—especially the black boys—suffer from near-constant physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Elwood befriends the cynical Turner, whose adolescent experiences of violence have made him deeply skeptical of the objectivity of justice. Elwood and Turner’s struggles to survive and maintain their personhood are interspersed with chapters from Elwood’s adult life, showing how the physical and emotional toll of his time at Nickel still affects him. Inspired by horrific events that transpired at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.
Winter’s stunning debut fantasy epic is rich in complex characters and a well-wrought world with both European and African influences. Tau Tafari is a common boy of the Omehi people, whose society is strictly divided by class. When his father is murdered needlessly to assuage the ego of an offended noble, Tau vows to take advantage of the only opportunity his class is given and become an Ihashe in the Omehian military. Tau’s determination wins him a spot as an initiate, though most of the other initiates have far greater skill. Desperate to improve himself, Tau breaches the underworld, Isihogo, with the help of his lover, Zuri, a young woman training to become an Enervator (those with the ability to siphon power from the underworld during battle). While his physical body remains untouched, Tau’s soul is free to spar with the demons that stalk Isihogo, and this twisted training changes him far more than he expects. Winter’s secondary characters support his hero’s story and amplify its themes of brotherhood, but it is Tau himself, far more nuanced than a simple underdog, who will move readers to eagerly seek the next volume. This impressive series launch holds tremendous promise.