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.

Zoo City

Lauren Beukes Avoids the Sophomore Curse with Zoo City

Zoo City’s Only Fault? Inconsistent Awesome

Lauren Beukes' Zoo City; UK Cover by Joey Hi-Fi aka D. HalvorsenAt it’s core, if we strip it of most of its fantastical elements, Zoo City is a arguably just a crime drama – a so-called hardboiled thriller. Or so some blurb writers might have us believe – as well as whoever wrote Lauren Beukes’ Wikipedia entry. But even without the element of mashavi manifested as animals that criminals must bear as they go about their daily lives – imagine Hester Prynne having a scarlet ibis flapping along behind her throughout Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter – Beukes’ second novel is more than just a well-written thriller set in the seedier side of present-day Johannesburg.

Beukes, a self-described recovering journalist, has obviously put her Fourth Estate skills to work and put together an entertaining and rich yet subtle commentary on prejudice, culture and society interwoven with a work of gritty or realistic urban fantasy. Indeed, Zoo City owes more to Gibson and Gaiman than Tolkien and Lewis, to be sure. It’s also a credit to Beukes as an author that a work that could have easily been formulaic and derivative is actually original and eminently readable.

You People: Being Animaled in Zoo City

A bit of explanation is in order: Zoo City is set in an alternate present-day Johannesburg, South Africa. In the world of Zoo City, serious criminals are beset with their own specific animals that mark them as a criminal, making them a so-called “zoo.” In fact, in Beukes’ Jo-burg there isn’t so much prejudice between black and white as there is against the animaled – the zoos – from all quarters. The animaled are  “you people” in Beukes’ alternate world, regardless of the color of their skin.

Given that this is South Africa, many believe the animals attached to those that commit crimes are mashavi, the spirits of people that have left no descendants behind or whose descendants no longer honor or remember them. The idea of mashavi (that’s the plural, shavi is the singular) comes from the Shona people of Zimbabwe, or at least the term does; animism and belief in ancestral spirits is a traditional belief in many traditional African religions.

In any event, within the context of Zoo City, being animaled marks you in no uncertain terms in most people’s eyes, as we see through Beukes’ chief protagonist and first-person narrator, Zinzi December. Like her creator, Zinzi is a former and maybe would-be-again journalist. Unlike (presumably) her creator, Zinzi has served time in prison for a violent crime, and as such is animaled: she now lives with a metaphorical and literal monkey on her back. Only it’s not a monkey, in Zinzi’s case, but a sloth, and as result she lives on the margins of society, even though she has a college degree and professional experience, and has ostensibly paid her debt to society – but we all know how that works, real life or fictional.

Lauren Beukes' Zoo City; North American ho-hum cover artAnd it’s to Beukes’ further credit that she never actually resorts to that cliché about monkeys, backs and bad habits – implied, perhaps, but never stated. This, despite the fact that Zinzi is also an addict (or a recovering one, depending on your sense of semantics and vernacular).

Along with being animaled, being graced with a shavi also gives some people unique talents or skills akin to magic; in Zinzi’s case this is finding things that people have lost. As Zoo City begins, we learn that Zinzi uses this skill as her livelihood, since she is a marked woman in the eyes of society; the South African version of Vanity Fair (or its equivalent) is not likely to come knocking, looking for her byline.

When her current client dies unexpectedly before Zinzi can get paid, she reluctantly agrees to take a potentially lucrative missing persons job, something she ordinarily avoids. It just so happens the missing person is also part of a teenage popstar duo, and we’re off and running with our thriller plot, which is inextricably mixed up with mashavi and magic.

Didn’t Quite Get There: A Bit of an Anticlimax

In fact it would be difficult to have exactly the same thriller of a plot if we stripped away the mashavi; they are at its core. Nevertheless, if there is one disappointing thing in Zoo City, it’s the culmination of the plot. If we do take away the element of the mashavi, the climax leaves us with the standard, ho-hum stuff of pop-fiction thrillers.

But then it is Beukes’ talent that perhaps works against her in this respect; Beuke’s sophomore novel is so well done she perhaps sets up some unrealistic expectations. The characters in Zoo City are so wonderfully realized, the element of mashavi expertly woven into the otherwise common fabric of a seedy, urban backdrop — bringing something blessedly original to a crowded sub-genre – that one anticipates some mind-blowing, oh-my-gods-no-one-could-have-seen-this-coming climax to Zoo City.

And this is not to say that the climax is bad or not otherwise well written and realized, it is. It just doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the novel. Furthermore, this is also certainly not to say that you shouldn’t read it; you should; it’s nothing short of great stuff, particularly considering it’s only the author’s second novel.

Beaukes: Clarke Award Winner, Master of Metaphor

Zoo City is a winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award (I’m a nerd and keep track of such things as winners of Arthur C. Clarke awards; the master is still one of my favorites, too). In this interview with Beukes from the venerable science fiction podcast, Escape Pod – following the news of the award — one of the first questions the interviewer asks her is how she scored a book blurb from author William Gibson; the story of how this came about is particularly post modern.

Comparisons to Gibson and his contemporaries is perhaps inevitable, given the subject of her first book, Moxyland, it being an example of the cyberpunk science fiction, another crowded subgenre that Gibson himself helped define decades ago. I’ve read enough of Moxyland now to have a feel for it, but I have to say that it is Zoo City actually reminds me much more Gibson’s cyberpunk works, even though Beukes’ second novel is set in the present day.

While her writing style is somewhat akin to Gibson’s earlier works, it is the character, Zinzi, who is reminiscent of someone out of Burning Chrome or Neuromancer. Here we have someone who is existing on the margins of society, a member of a subculture that most people outside of it seek to either avoid or take advantage of. Here we have someone displaced by an omnipresent aspect of their culture and yet using the very same in order to get by – indeed, that aspect is inescapable; it drives much of the plot and characterization in Zoo City, as it does in Gibson’s cyberpunk works. In Gibson’s stories and earlier novels, that aspect was advanced technology; in Zoo City it’s mashavi.

In lesser hands, the mashavi and the colorful side of the Jo-burg tracks would overshadow Zinzi and the novel’s coterie – menagerie? – of other zoos; in the hands of a less capable author, Sloth would be a cutesy character that overshadows Zinzi. Fortunately for Beukes’ readers, neither is the case. Narrator Zinzi occupies front and center stage, albeit with Sloth – who is nevertheless a character in his own right – along for the ride.

In fact it’s surprising given her background as a journalist that Beukes seems to spill out such effortless prose as that in Zoo City; not all recovering journalists make good novelists. But it’s quite easy as a reader to become immersed in Zinzi’s world pretty much from the outset on page one:

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my windows. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I need to get curtains.

Shielding my eyes – morning has broken and there’s no picking up the pieces – I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoit doesn’t so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticking out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. Feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.

The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbbing under his nose. Like he doesn’t know that my computer is out of bounds. Let’s just say I’m precious about my work. Let’s just say it’s not entirely legal.

Only one more thing to say about this: hell yes. How could you not be hooked? By the way, you can hear Beukes herself read this passage in the Escape Pod interview.

And just in those few paragraphs, laden with a few but key details, we learn so much about Zinzi and her world. This is not a fluke; much of the novel unreels like this, bit by bit. It’s quite simply a pleasure to read.

Beukes also has a flair for interesting and colorful metaphor. This doesn’t always work, but it does much more often than not. And when it does, wow. For example:

Emmanuel’s grin drops from his face like a kicked puppy, bounces on the pavement and tumbles into the gutter with a pitiful yelp.

Or

Mr. Huron, I presume, emerges onto the balcony with a flourish. He’s not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe, all his weight loaded in front …

Not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe. That’s … that’s brilliant; that’s brilliant, original metaphor. Color me green with envy.

Then there is this passage, when Zinzi tells Benoit that her current client died that afternoon.

“She died. Murdered, if you want to be technical. I was practically there and the connection just … withered up.” Saying it, I feel the kick in my gut again. Like a lost heart attack that’s wandered into my intestines by mistake.

It’s this flair for metaphor that brings Zinzi and her world to life, lending an actual flavor of realism to Zoo City, thankfully making that gritty urban world more than just a subgenre – or worse still – marketing label, in this case. To wit, Zinzi’s description of her first day outside of prison, after several years:

I spent most of that first day hiding inside the apartment, trying to figure out what my next move was. In prison, you can drift between claxons that regiment the day, just doing what you’re told, like a ball in a slow-mo pinball machine. I missed those claxons.

Okay, technically that’s a simile, but you still, you get the idea (yes, I’m a word nerd). This talent for metaphor is also one of the things that reminds one of Gibson. Just as he gave us a Chiba sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” the tiles of a dilapidated swimming pool in Zoo City “are chipped, the lapis-lazuli blue faded to a dull glaucoma.” Just as a Gibson character in Count Zero gave us meatspace as a metaphor for reality, as opposed to cyberspace (is it sad or cool that I know this off the top of my head?), Beukes’ Zinzi describes herself as “meat with faulty programming.”

I really wanted to believe that there were these magic celestial bodies that would direct my life, tell me what to do, and it turns out it’s not stars, it’s some bits of screwy DNA. I’m just meat with faulty programming.

Fortunately for us, Beukes’ meat is programmed with considerable talent for the written word.

Interested in Beukes’ first novel, the cyberpunk opus Moxyland? Follow that link.

Post script: As you may have noticed, there are two different covers presented here; one is the North American one, the other is the United Kingdom edition – the black-and-white one. I’d be curious to know why the publisher thought we needed the more standard cover here in North America – the artwork is fine, but it’s just a basic, standard pop-fiction cover. It wouldn’t stand out at all on a bookstore shelf.

The UK cover on the other hand, is quite arresting. In fact its creator, South African artist D. Halvorsen, won an award for the work at this year’s British National Science Fiction Convention for best cover art. Check out Halvorsen’s portfolio; it’s worth a visit.

Post post script: For some odd reason, the ebook edition I downloaded from Amazon – I pay for books from living authors, and you should too, if you are in a financial position to do so – has the North American cover, but the text uses spellings found in British English (presumably the standard in South Africa). What one English friend of mine once termed English English, as opposed to American English.

One could argue the efficacy of covers in the dawning age of ebooks, but we’ll save that for another time. As for English English vs. American English, well that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish (and chips, with vinegar, yum).