#REVIEW: Each of Us a Desert, by Mark Oshiro

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.

But anyway.

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.

Mark Oshiro reads THE SIGIL

…and, with this video, completes The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 1. Holy cow, this has been fun. I’ve got to send this guy a copy of The Sanctum of the Sphere.

#Review: ANGER IS A GIFT, by Mark Oshiro

I wasn’t ready for this damn book.

My first exposure to Mark Oshiro actually happened because a mutual Patron suggested that Mark read The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 1 on their Mark Reads Stuff YouTube channel. I admit I feel a little special because, technically, they had heard of me before I heard of them. Which, take that, traditional publishing!

Anyway, they seem to have been enjoying themselves, and watching them read my book has been fun as hell, so I figured there was a good chance I’d like their work as well, and in that spirit I just finished their debut novel, Anger Is a Gift.

And it has kicked my ass. I made a terrible mistake last night while reading in bed; at one point I looked over at my wife (who is reading Harrow the Ninth right now) and said “This book is trying to lull me into a false sense of security. I don’t trust optimism any more. Something terrible is about to happen.”

And like ten minutes later I was so angry I could barely breathe, and any thought of sleep within the next hour or so at the least was banished. Not angry at the book, mind you, although I did come very close to tossing it across the room. Angry on behalf of Moss Jeffries, the book’s main character.

As the events of the book begin, Moss has been without his father for a few years. His father was shot by a police officer while leaving a local corner store with headphones on and hands filled with groceries. He attends high school in Oakland, CA, at a school that has recently begun a policy where students can be pulled from class, at any time, by school police officers to search their lockers. As it turns out, the cop in question already does not exactly have the rest of the student body’s trust, and this policy goes badly.

Which leads to metal detectors at the door. Which goes badly.

Which leads to the students planning a walk-out as protest. Which goes very badly.

I’m not going to spoil any more; suffice it to say that protest and police brutality and loss are strong themes of this book, and it begins with a handful of content warnings that maybe I should have taken a bit more seriously myself, because reading this book as a teacher of Black and Brown children in 2020 was very, very difficult. These kids are failed by nearly every adult in their lives– Moss’ mother is wonderful, as is his boyfriend Javier’s mother, but the school personnel and even some of the other parents are benignly neglectful at best and actively harmful at worst, and I spent as much time angry with school personnel as I did with the actions of the police.

I will admit that there were a few moments where I had thoughts of the Would they REALLY … type, mostly relating to various actions the police take regarding the protesters, and … honestly, there’s no excuse to be thinking something like that in 2020. Even if this was mildly unrealistic when it was released in 2018, it’s just not any longer. It’s impossible to have watched the actions of the police across the country this year with your eyes open and declare anything to be beyond them.

That quote on the cover of the book declares it to be “beautiful and brutal.” And … yeah. That’s a really good description of the book. Anger is a Gift was a hard book to read, but absolutely well worth it, and I think you will hear about it again at the end of the year.

Mark Oshiro reads THE CONTRACT

I am running out of ways to introduce these, as there’s only so many ways I can say “God, it’s amazing to watch someone else read your book and react live, and I’m so happy he seems to be enjoying it.” I absolutely cannot wait for him to read the story that ends the book. Absolutely. Cannot. Wait.

(Also: my next book to read is one of Mark’s. I’m psyched.)

Mark Oshiro reads REMEMBER: final part!

This has just absolutely been the best thing ever. I have one of Mark’s books on my unread shelf and I can’t wait to get to it.