Review: Redemption in Indigo

Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is Not Your Parents’ Speculative Fiction

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoHaving recently caught up on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, as well as having gone back and reread Tolkien – damn near all of it; people with torn quadriceps tendons need comfort food – Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo was quite a refreshing bit of fantasy, if you can call it that. It was nominated for a 2011 World Fantasy Award, so I suppose we can. But the term speculative fiction fits Redemption in Indigo better, however, as there are elements of physics – albeit of a fantastical flavor – interwoven with Senegalese folklore and spirits called djombi – reflections of its author’s Carribean roots (she’s a native of Barbados) and the larger African diaspora, perhaps, as well as a professional life steeped in academia.

Redemption in Indigo is remarkable in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it is a splendidly well-written first novel. But it seems remarkable to me that here is a rather slim and succinct book – in comparison to today’s genre fiction with its stereotypical bejillion-page magnum opus XI of XX – that has no swords in it and really no visceral violence to speak of contained within its pages. There are no swooning damsels – in distress or feeling randy – although our main character is certainly in distress of a kind (but not the kind that can be fixed by white horses and shiny armor).

Really it’s remarkable that books like Redemption in Indigo get published at all in this day and age gritty fantasy. But it’s fortunate for us that we do. Cheers to Small Beer Press, the dead-tree counterpart to Weightless Books.

The beginning – even books about the spirit of Chance and its tool, Chaos, have a beginning – of Lord’s Redemption in Indigo finds the aforementioned Paama fleeing her ten-year marriage. Her husband, Ansige, you see, is a gourmand in the worst sense of the word – “not an epicure, but a gourmand,” as Lord’s narrator tells us. In short, he is an irredeemable glutton. Thus we find Paama, getting close to the wrong side of youth, her marriage a childless and loveless failure, having retreated to her family’s home in its ancestral village.

It may sound trite, if not down-right yawn inducing, but in Lord’s capable hands, it doesn’t read this way at all. In fact the book’s opening vignette is rather skillfully humorous. As we meet bumbling and hapless Ansige, he is undertaking a perilous journey to Paama’s village – perilous because he is limited in the amount of food he can take and prepare along the way to sustain his usual-yet-ridiculously voracious diet. And it is here, even before we meet Paama, that we meet our first djombi, and get a hint that this book might be more than it initially seems.

It is here, too, that we first meet our narrator, the story teller. If I have a bone to pick with Indigo in Blue, it would be with Lord’s use of the narrator. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s get back to Ansige and Paama.

Ultimately Ansige, a minor character, turns out to be not a humorous figure at all but a tragic one; he has only himself to blame for his circumstances. Paama, on the other hand, is fate’s plaything – or rather that of Patience. And plaything is really not the right word; let’s call her an instrument of Patience, as she uses Paama to achieve the redemption of the spirit of Chance, or at least offer him a path to rehabilitation.

While Paama is a central character in Redemption in Indigo and of critical importance to its plot, it is Chance that is the main character; Lord uses the folktale of Paama and Ansige to introduce what I suppose we can call the spiritual dilemma of the undying djombi. As Karen Lord explained in a recent interview with Carribean Beat arts magazine, there are no fantasy elements in the original story at all; she added these as she developed the story.

Chief among those is the character of Chance, who has become disillusioned with humanity and subsequently filled with ennui. As an immortal being imbued with the power of Chaos, this is – well, I’ll let Lord’s narrator tell it:

Remember what we mentioned to you before. This is a dangerous person. He enjoys lulling the prey into a feeling of safety before killing it. That instant of betrayal, that twist of perception when one realizes that one’s entire universe is founded on a lie – that is the moment that acts on his boredom as splendidly as champagne on a jaded palate.

This description comes near the beginning of the story, soon after Paama has been given the power of Chaos unknowingly, and Chance has come looking for it. It is when he finds her that the story at the heart of Redemption in Indigo begins. Let us skip to the end of the story: having been confronted by the most powerful being in his pantheon, Patience, Chance is, shall we say, offered another chance.

“What changed, she asked him.

He walked a few more pensive steps, and then answered. “Paama is an unusual woman.”

… “Not as unusal as you might think,” she said, replying at last to his comment about Paama. “There are many women like her, considered by some to be virtuous and lyal, considered by others as foolish and week. What about Paama changed you?”

“Nothing stopped her from trying to do what she felt to be right, not even despair. She was willing to learn, and when she felt the lesson was beyond her capacity, she was willing to simply obey.”

“Ah, so you saw her duty,” Patience said, sounding pleased.

“No, not at first. She saw her duty long before I noticed it. There are many things that I once knew but which I had forgotten, and one of them was that human duty is not very different ours.”

And, later in the conversation, when Patience has put her offer on the table:

Chance looked at her and considered long and hard. He had tried isolation, and it had been sterile and useless. He had tried to do as he pleased with humans, and instead of senseless vermin he had found Paama, remarkable in her own ordinary way, and very burdensome on his conscience. He found himself running out of choices.

So what choice does he make? You’ll have to read the novel to find out. But Chance’s potential redemption is not the only one on offer in Indigo; there is that of Paama as well. Chance takes her on a journey through space and time in an effort to show her that Chaos is not a power that is easily wielded, even with the best of intentions. As Lord describes it early in the novel:

Chaos was a far subtler force than most people realized. It would be so easy to sense if it threw off thunderbolts or sent barely sensed thrummings through the fabric of reality, but it was nothing more than the possible made probable. It did not break or bend any laws of nature or tip the balance of the universe. How would a mere human understand how to manipulate it? They would end up thinking they were merely lucky, or blessed.

What’s more, our jaded immortal tries to convince her that humanity is not even worth the trouble. But in the end, Paama may have illustrated for him otherwise.

As for Paama’s own redemption, again, you’ll just have to read the novel. And you really should.

Raucous Storyteller or Unnecessary Convention?

Now, about that bone of contention. Narrators that stick themselves into stories that are otherwise told from an omniscient third person point of view almost always bother me. If a story otherwise told in the third person needs a narrator as character, then there’s a problem with the story (or the author). I think it is a convention that rarely works, even for accomplished writers. Furthermore, I think it’s often done because of writers’ lack of faith in their own abilities; sometimes those fears are unfortunately real, at other times unfounded.

While I can’t speak to the inner workings of Karen Lord’s mind, I can certainly say there is certainly no lack of writerly talent in Redemption in Indigo, and certainly none that needs to be bolstered by a narrator as character. Initially I was a little put off by the presence of this narrator – yes, it’s a bias, I’ll admit, but one with reasonable foundations, I’d argue – but in Indigo the narrator’s presence works and works well for the most part, enriching both prose and story, rather than getting in the way.

I read Redemption in Indigo on my Kindle, and when I looked through most of the quotes I had made from the book, the majority of them in fact comprise clever asides by the narrator. To wit:

Alton’s Love Poems to Neila have been famous for years, as everyone knows, but if you want to sample them for yourself, or try a verse or two on your own beloved, I fear that you will have to buy the published works or attend one of the performances still running in theaters in many of the major cities. A minor writer such as I cannot afford the cost of reproducing the words of the poet dubbed Love’s Own Laureate.

And to be fair, Lord’s narrator mostly keeps out of the way, while still offering up those clever asides, like this early description of our aforementioned poet:

A terribly shy man, he was far too self-deprecating, an unhelpful trait in any person who aims to sell snatches of empty air shaped around vowels and consonants, or worse, bits of white paper irregularly stained with black ink.

Or this gem, again with regard to the hapless poet:

Women fell into that category of fantasies and dreams that worked well when unfulfilled but presented all kinds of problems when brought out into the real world of trial and failure.

And lastly:

Many women, by their beauty and sheer presence, have reduced intelligent men to babbling idiots or gaping mutes, but few have inspired to such heights of eloquence a man who can only be described as mediocre. There is the secret. Show a woman that she has the power to improve you a thousand times over, and she is yours for life.

That last one literally made me laugh out loud when I read it. Like all good humor that relies on hyperbole, there is a grain of truth in there.

But there are times when Lord’s narrator becomes needlessly intrusive, and this is annoying at best.

… but I am hearing some rumblings from my audience. You are distressed that I have spoiled the moving and romantic tale of how Love’s Laureate courted his beautiful wife? You complain that I have turned it into a cobbled pastiche of happenstance, expediency, and the capricious tricks of the djombi? I bleed for your injured sentiments, but to dress the tale in vestments of saga and chivalry was never my intent. A sober and careful reading of history will teach you that both lesser and greater persons have been treated more roughly by fate. Be content. If it was only a djombi’s vanity and aversion to human company that caused Alton to become a merchant prince for one night, if it was fear of discovery and capture that made that djombi flee, thus settling a lordly mantle on Alton for all time, how does that come to be my fault? I am only the one who tells the story.

It is particularly annoying because her prose stands on it own and easily; it doesn’t need this sort of thing and it consequently only serves to disrupt the story. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often.

Karen Lord, author of Redemption in IndigoHaving said that, there admittedly may be a cultural nuance here that I’m missing or just otherwise don’t understand, being a native of an Ohio suburb. In the course of looking for some biographical information on the author, as well as some background on cultural beliefs with regard to djombis, I came across several reviews that praised Lord’s narrator as a reflection of traditional oral storytelling in African cultures and consequently the African Diaspora – namely the West Indies. The idea that our spirited narrator was a nod to cultural roots – either consciously or otherwise, never occurred to me, quite honestly. Furthermore, I have to admit that in that context, the feisty narrator as character makes more sense.

In any event, Redemption in Indigo is an excellent novel, at turns amusing and insightful. Let us hope that Karen Lord’s muse will inspire many more such works.

And now that I’ve read two of the six nominees for the 2011 World Fantasy Award in the novel category – Lauren Beukes’ amazing Zoo City – I’m curious to read the winner, Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death. It just occurred to me, incidentally, that all of these novels have an African connection. Zoo City is set in a South Africa of the near future, while Who Fears Death is set in a far-future Saharan Africa.

P.S. For an interesting review of Redemption in Indigo that delves into how Lord weaves physics into her narrative, check out review at Small Axe Salon.

P.P.S. This novel was the winner of a Mythopoeic Award, a Crawford Award and a Frank Collymore Award, in addition to being a World Fantasy Award finalist. It was also longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literatures and shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature.

P.P.P.S. Longlisted? Er?

Get Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo here.

Back in the Saddle: Thoughts on Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear

So I took a break from blogging – well, more of a hiatus, really, which you can read more about over at the Gecko’s Bark.

But I’m more or less back in the saddle, although I have less time for reading and writing now that I’m working again. Nevertheless, here I am.

While on my goofing-off hiatus, I still read often. I finished Connie Willis’ time travel and WW II two-part opus, Blackout and All Clear, read William Gibson’s entire catalog once again, from Burning Chrome on up to his most recent, Zero History – the third entry in the so-called Bigend trilogy. I also re-read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and re-visited a lot of Arthur C. Clarke’s catalog. Somewhere along the line I also perused Earth: The Book (which, while amusing, is nowhere near as funny as its predecessor). More recently, I’ve re-immersed myself in Isaac Asmov’s various Foundation novels, and went back and read the sequels, which I had never read before, and am currently working my way through the prequels.

The works above for the most part represent the equivalent of literary comfort food. There are others of course – I often visit my old friend W. Somerset Maugham and his friends in The Razor’s Edge; these are just some of the works I happened to turn to when in need these past months. The Harry Potter books are mental Doritos: not the worst thing you could eat but not exactly healthy, but oh so tasty and enjoyable. Of course some might say the same of the science fiction I read, even the lofty ideas inherent in Clarke and Asimov – one person’s occasional tasty snack is another’s dietary staple.

To each his own.

Sounding Connie Willis’ All Clear

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutI think too many months have passed since I read All Clear for me to give it a proper review along with its companion novel, Blackout, and I’m not of a mind to go back and reread it just now. So I’ll just offer up some general impressions. First off, I confess I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Willis’ Blackout.

I think for people who haven’t read a lot of science fiction just the mere aspect of the time travel may be enough to entertain, but time travel isn’t exactly a fresh topic, and it’s hard to bring some originality to this well-worn sci-fi staple. Furthermore, beyond the central idea of a science fiction novel – the conceit that makes it science fiction as opposed to just fiction – the same things that make any sort of fiction good make a science fiction novel good (beyond the ideas and themes): plotting, characterization and so forth – the actual art of writing (I would argue it’s an art, not a craft; at least it should be).

In Blackout, Willis throws us right into the thick of things, with our characters from the mid 21-century England back in World War II-era. They are historians, you see, using time travel as one would naturally expect historians to do, should they ever have access to it. If, like me, you’ve immersed yourself in the nerdy world of science fiction, you are probably thinking (if you aren’t already familiar with Blackout/All Clear’s plot), “Yawn. Historians traveling in the past. Gee, that’s never been done before. Let me guess. They get stuck and/or are in danger of altering history. Been there, done that.”

And in a sense, you would be right. And one of the problems I had with Blackout is that in addition to these very standard sci-fi conventions, our characters are pretty generic. One hundred pages in, I couldn’t help but think frankly: “Wtf? How and why did this win a Nebula?”

However, I’m nothing if not stubborn, and for whatever reason, I’m loathe to stop reading a book I’ve started. It has to be really, really bad for me to give up on it. Funny, but I’ll bail on a movie or television show at the drop of a hat, but I’ll slog through terrible fiction. But I digress.

As it soon becomes clear by the middle of Blackout, the most important character – at least in this first novel – is Blitz-era London, the surrounding countryside, and their British inhabitants. It is this that is Blackout/All Clear’s saving grace, and makes it Nebula worthy: Willis paints an indelible portrait of what it was like to live through the Blitz and World War II in a way that perhaps no factual history book could.

I wonder now – as I did before – if Willis actually made a conscious effort to draw the characters of her future historians somewhat generically in order to draw the reader to the characters who dwell in the past – who can’t simply pop back to the comforts of 21st-century London when it suits them. By the middle of Blackout it is these folks that we come to care about more so than the future historians. Indeed, as one of her historians notes toward the end of All Clear: while History remembers the political leaders – Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin – and venerates those who fought and died, the common people – both those who lived through the war and those who didn’t – who simply “carried on” through the incredible adversity with the business of living life – are also worthy of veneration and remembrance.

To be sure, this is a sentimental cliché, and Willis is hardly the first author to express the idea – it’s perhaps an even bigger cliché than time travel. So it is to her credit that by the time we come to the end of All Clear, we care what happens both to our historians and her characters native to 1940s England, and she manages to write an entertaining and Hugo-nomination worthy effort that doesn’t get weighed down with maudlin sentimentality (there is a bit of this, to be sure, but not too much).

Again, hard core sci-fi fans – the ones who live to find continuity errors in extended works and can endlessly debate items of literary canon – may be tempted to poo-poo time travel as depicted in Blackout and All Clear, and I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. There is never a satisfactory explanation as to how time travel actually works here, and only somewhat vague notions as to why it suddenly stops working, at least in terms of being a two-way trip.

But again, the novels aren’t really about time travel, but about the lives of British citizens living through the Blitz – time travel is just a conceit to take the reader back there – readers, who, like our mid-21st century historians, may know the details of the war, the dates of the battles and perhaps even the horrific accounts of the survivors – but really can’t fathom what it was like to simply be alive at this time, to be an ordinary civilian living through the War, dealing with the rationing, and nightly air raids. To discover this is why her historians do travel back there, and why it’s worth it as readers to go along for the ride.

So if you’ve read Blackout or happen to be in the middle of reading it and are inclined to put it down, as I was, carry on and get to the second novel, All Clear; it’s worth it, in the end.

One big complaint I do have about the novels, however: they really should have been one work. Willis says in a forward that it became clear during the writing that the work simply had to become two works; I’m inclined, humble reader I may be, to respectfully disagree. I think some very skillful plotting and/or skillful editing could have produced one long but well-paced and entertaining novel. Blackout quite frankly doesn’t stand alone as a novel, and it seems to me that if a novel can’t stand alone, then it shouldn’t. But then judging by the trends today in popular fiction, I’m in the minority.

Initial Thoughts: Connie Willis’ Blackout

Connie Willis' BlackoutI just finished the first half of Connie Willis’ Nebula-award winning duology, Blackout – the second title being All Clear. To write a review of it I suppose I should wait until I finish the second book and review them as a whole, but here are some initial thoughts. Don’t worry, beyond general, initial plot points, there are no spoilers ahead – nothing that you wouldn’t find out in reading the publisher’s synopsis.

The Problem With Time Travel (Plots)

Really it’s the problem with science fiction in general, as Theodore Sturgeon so aptly pointed out: it’s tough to be original. So far as the first book is concerned, there is nothing new or original here in terms of time travel as plot device; it’s kind of ho-hum, in that regard. To be honest, if it hadn’t been a Nebula award winner, I would have passed on these books altogether, just based on the publisher’s blurb.

It also doesn’t help that we never really get to know our three main characters (there is a fourth one, but she disappears completely from the narrative halfway through Blackout; presumably Willis picks up this character’s thread in All Clear). The pacing of the book is quite fast, and Willis employs a limited third person narration for each protagonist. As a result we only get cursory insights into what makes our protagonists tick.

While they do get into some scary situations once all are back in England in 1940 at the beginning of The Blitz and the Battle of Britain – Nazi Germany’s bombing campaign over British cities and its concurrent battle for air superiority, respectively – the fact that we know so little of these people as characters made it difficult to maintain interest in the book. They are not unsympathetic; we just don’t know much about them. It isn’t until the latter third of the book that we get a chance to see the character of three characters, if you will.

Painting Life in Wartime

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutIn fact if it weren’t for Willis’ vivid depictions of wartime London, and the characters our protagonists meet there, I probably would have surrendered altogether and put Blackout down. Life is too short to read books you don’t like (unless you are getting paid to review them, which I am not). However, as one interested in history, this is Blackout’s saving grace, as far as I’m concerned. In fact Willis early on draws some contrast between the specter of terrorism and suicide bombing that we face today (and apparently still do in 2060) with the fears the British – and all of the Allied powers in Europe – had to face in Hitler’s march across the continent.

One might argue that we learn so little of our protagonists because the real heroes of the story are indeed the Londoners of 1940 who maintain that traditional stiff upper lip and carry on in the face of the Nazi’s aerial terror, and that this was be design. If that were the case, however, then why the limited third person narration? We only get glimpses of these other characters through our narrator’s eyes, after all. For that matter, why even place our protagonists bodily back in 1940 at all, if this were the case?

No, I don’t think this was Willis’ intent, just a byproduct, and a fortunate one at that. But before I make any further pronouncements, I’ll wait for the All Clear to sound – i.e., I’ll finish it.