Mark Oshiro’s name has been coming up a lot around here recently– they read The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 1 on YouTube, which was immensely fun for me to watch, and I reviewed their debut novel Anger is a Gift back in September. Reading Anger is a Gift got me to order their second novel, Each of Us a Desert, which I finished last night.
I loved Anger. Loved it. And I’m kind of fascinated by my reaction to Desert, because while I didn’t enjoy reading it to the degree that I did Anger, I think it’s objectively a better book, and it’s definitely more interesting to me as an author than Anger was, because, especially for someone who hasn’t written any fantasy novels before, Oshiro does a magnificent job of slapping the genre around, and from a craft standpoint this book is a marvel.
Each of Us a Desert is second-world fantasy set in what is basically an analogue of Mexico, and let’s get this part out of the way early: there is a lot of Spanish in this book. It’s mostly single nouns and verbs, so if you don’t speak any Spanish you can pick up a lot from context, and there aren’t a whole lot of entire sentences and phrases, but it’s going to be a much harder read for someone with no Spanish than it was for me. (I can get by, if necessary. I had a student who barely spoke any English in my class last year and most of the time I spoke to her in Spanish, with Google Translate next to me as an aid when needed.)
There is a whole conversation to be had about how using multiple real languages in fantasy literature works, by the way. I’m not going to have it in this post, but I spent a lot of time while I was reading thinking about the technical side of things; when you decide as an author to render a word in Spanish rather than in English, and how much of the editing process was dedicated to, more or less, calibrating the amount of Spanish in the book, or what it means to the characters to use Spanish instead of English. Note that, again, this is second-world fantasy, and the words “Spanish,” “English,” and “Mexico” appear nowhere in the book. There is no indication that any of the characters know they’re flipping from one language to another, which is part of what makes it interesting.
The main character of the book is Xochitl, a young woman who lives in a tiny village in the middle of the desert. Xochitl is a cuentista, which is basically a priestess of the sun god Solís. As a cuentista, her job is to take in the stories of the people around her and then release them back to Solís. If you’re familiar with the concept of the sin eater, this isn’t far off; there is definitely an element of absolution to Xochitl taking a story, of the emotional aspects of the tale at least, and when she releases them back to her god she no longer remembers them afterwards. Until she takes a story from a friend and realizes that her home is in danger, and that she has to choose between doing something about what she knows or doing what she is supposed to do with the story, which is the conflict that sets the book’s story going.
The entire book– the entire book– is structured as one long prayer to Solís. Which is fascinating, and the true importance of which doesn’t really become clear until the last few pages. The book’s ending is perfect, and moved the book into five-star territory for me. (Also, I normally don’t mention the acknowledgements section of books unless they mention me, which has happened once or twice, but please consider the acknowledgements required reading. Trust me.)
Also worth pointing out: the book is absolutely a fantasy, as I’ve already pointed out, and features magic and monsters and such, as you might expect, but it owes less to Tolkien than it does to Lewis Carroll. There’s a lot of wandering through the desert in this book, and the hallucinatory aspects of some of the encounters that the characters have throughout the book are fascinating– you’re often not quite sure if something is really happening or is brought on by dehydration and heat exhaustion, and I’m pretty sure the answer is “both” at least a couple of times.
This is a book you should read, but it’s especially a book you should read if you’re an author, and it’s really especially a book you should read if you work in speculative fiction. My final reaction to it is more of respect than love, I admit; I want to read Anger again because of how great a story it tells, but I want to study this book and pick apart its techniques. Either way, thumbs way up.