You may recall that I’m doing this little project where I want to read 52 books by women of color this year. I’m on track right now, as this is the last week of March and I’m just over 1/4 of the way to that magic number– technically, The Book of M is book 14 and I’m reading book 15 right now. That said, I haven’t mentioned all of these books on the site, so I thought I’d do a quick cover gallery for the first quarter of the year.
So. So far, 1/4 of the way through #52booksbywomenofcolor, I’ve read the following:
I’ve done official reviews of a few of them, but not all; let me know if there’s anything any of y’all are curious about.
I think I’ll start with the tl;dr on this book: much like a book called The Luminous Dead that I read last year, which ended up on my best-of-year list at the end of the year despite having a fair number of flaws, my ultimate feelings about Peng Shepherd’s debut novel The Book of M are going to depend on how well the book continues to live in my head now that I’ve finished it. I read the book in a day, which is always a good sign– anything I’m reluctant to put down is usually going to be something I’m going to recommend to people– but … there are some issues here, y’all, and it remains to be seen whether three months from now I remember the cool stuff or I remember the issues.
Also, it might not have been the greatest decision I’ve ever made to read a book about the end of the world while I’m literally stuck in my house during a pandemic. I’ve made better choices, is what I’m saying. And depending on your own situation right now even if you do decide to read this you might reasonably decide to hold off for a little bit. It’s OK, the book will still be there.
(Takes a moment to cough himself into near-unconsciousness)
So the premise of this book: human beings, through means never particularly dwelled upon or explored, have begun losing their shadows. In and of itself, losing one’s shadow is disconcerting but not especially threatening; however, it turns out that losing your shadow is also a precursor to losing your memory, which is a bit more of a problem. Furthermore, it turns out that occasionally as people’s memories disappear and they begin misremembering things, every so often the entire world just sorta reshapes itself to fit what they think they remember instead of the way things used to be, leading to all sorts of crazy havoc, from houses suddenly losing their doors and windows to entire population centers disappearing overnight. The book follows four main characters: a married couple, one of whose shadows disappears at the beginning of the book, an Iranian Olympic-level archer (roll with it,) and a man who suffers a traumatic brain injury just before the events of the book get rolling and suffers from amnesia, but not the same way everyone else does.
There’s a lot going on.
Here’s the good stuff: Peng Shepherd does good words. The writing is compelling throughout and there’s a palpable sense of dread and horror that permeates the entire book; it genuinely was difficult to put down, and again: it’s nearly 500 pages long and I finished the thing in a day. And, like, okay, I just dealt with “the good stuff” in two sentences, but this isn’t nothing, right? It’s a compelling-ass read. I barely stopped reading it once I stopped. That’s worth a recommend. Oh, and there’s a thing at the end that will knock you out of your seat if you’re not prepared for it. I had an inkling, but the book ends well.
That said, uh, there are some issues with … let’s say worldbuilding and narrative consistency, and the occasional real-world logic problem? And I’ll admit part of this may be me missing stuff here and there, as Shepherd can tend toward the elliptical every once in a while. But there are a fair number of places where there don’t seem to be any rules about how or why this whole memory-loss thing is happening other than pure narrative convenience, and the “sometimes folks misremember things and they become real” bit sounds cool but in practice it literally leads to the Statue of Liberty quietly coming to life and then, less quietly, knocking over skyscrapers with that book she’s holding. And that’s not even a main plot point. It’s literally noted that it’s happening and then the characters move on from it. It’s never quite clear what ultimately happens to the shadowless; sometimes they’re presented as basically becoming so nonfunctional that they forget to eat or breathe and then they die, and other times there are huge bands of them just sort of swarming around out there causing trouble, which sort of presumes some persistence of memory somehow.
Also, there are a whole lot of times where people are able to instantly identify others as shadowed or shadowless, at distance, and I’m pretty sure at least once at night. I could lose my shadow right now and I don’t know that I would notice right away; I don’t know how you figure out that someone fifty feet away has theirs or not. A character is able to fly from Tehran to some airport near Boston after all the shit happens, and explains that the plane is able to land because everyone in the (not Boston, but nearby) place it landed was gone.
And … uh. That’s not how planes work, I don’t think? Or at least that’s not how commercial air flight works?
There’s a bit where one guy gets serious third-degree burns to both his hands, necessitating one of his fingers being amputated later, and then I’m pretty sure that Shepherd herself just forgot about it. This is one of those bits where it’s possible that I missed something, I suppose; maybe the magic ex machina fixed him somewhere, but I don’t think so. His hands are burned to shit and then they … aren’t.
So: two sentences of “good stuff” and then several paragraphs of complaining, but I still enjoyed the book and I can still very much imagine a world where I’m still thinking about it at the end of the year. I’m definitely keeping an eye on Shepherd in the future; I don’t know if there’s a sequel to this in the cards (I don’t think it needs one, but it’s not unimaginable) but one way or another I’m definitely buying her next book. If you think your suspension of disbelief can handle a bit of a workout, I’d think about giving this a read.
I’ve only been to New York once. I was living in Chicago at the time, so it was probably fourteen or fifteen years ago now, and I was only there for a few days. I went to visit a girl, and I honestly wasn’t terribly interested in doing a lot of sightseeing with the limited amount of time we had, which I think disappointed her a little bit. She lived in Battery Park City, which is on the extreme southern tip of Manhattan (you could see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from not far away from her apartment) and other than the travel needed to get to Manhattan from whatever airport I arrived in, I didn’t really see any of the other boroughs. We went to Central Park, visiting the Zoo and finding the apartment building and the church from Ghostbusters, so you can tell whose priorities were driving the few places we did visit. If I were to identify myself with a city it would still be Chicago, despite the fact that I’ve now been away from the city for longer than I lived there.
The City We Became is, in a lot of ways, Not for Me. Jemisin has described the book repeatedly as a love letter to New York City, and as someone who doesn’t know the city I don’t know that I was missing anything, necessarily, but I suspect New Yorkers will get more out of the book than I might have. Except maybe for Staten Islanders. I would love to know what people from Staten Island think of this book, actually. It will be fascinating to see if this book is greeted with the near-universal acclaim that her previous work and particularly her Broken Earth trilogy received; if you’re not familiar with her, you should be: she is the only author ever to receive the Best Novel Hugo award three years in a row, and she is, hands down, the single most important author working in science fiction and fantasy today. And this, while still certainly fantasy, is very different tonally and structurally from her previous work, to the point where I’m not entirely certain I’d have pegged it as a Jemisin book if I didn’t know she’d written it.
None of that, mind you, is a complaint. The City We Became is the first book of a new trilogy and the basic storyline is simple enough that you can cover it in a sentence: New York City comes to life (roll with it) and chooses five individuals to act as avatars of each of the five boroughs.
(Pauses to put Beastie Boys on; To the 5 Boroughs has always been my favorite of their albums.)
Anyway, the Beasties thing broke this into two sentences rather than the promised one, but: there are complications. Turns out the birth of a city is a somewhat fraught and dangerous process, and there are those who tend to oppose it when it happens. You may have heard of Atlantis, for example, which did not survive the birthing process. There are a handful of other living cities as well; the avatars of São Paulo and Hong Kong make an appearance. There’s also a hell of an Oh Shit moment at the very end when the true nature of what they’ve been calling the Enemy throughout the book is revealed; a more careful reader than me may figure it out in advance (I should have; minor spoiler: take the myriad Lovecraft references seriously) but it’s still a great moment.
This is not one to sleep on, y’all. Jemisin is a powerhouse of an author no matter what, and a project like this that she’s openly admitting is some of the most personal work she’s ever done is not something to be missed. Go pick it up.