In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press by Katherine Corcoran

The unsolved murder of a Mexican journalist has implications for the free press and free society everywhere in this in-depth investigation.

In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press is American journalist Katherine Corcoran’s first book, focusing on the murder of Mexican journalist Regina Martínez in 2012, its aftermath and implications for the free press in Mexico and beyond. Corcoran details the years she spent investigating Martínez’s death, without the satisfaction of a final conclusion; the case remains unsolved, along with many other cases of slain journalists.

“To the foreigner, Mexico charms, cajoles, and seduces. There are so many Mexicos: so many climates, cultures, foods, and languages; contiguous, concentric, stacked; native and colonial; current and past; invisible yet present.” With this same attention to multiplicity, Corcoran relates the complicated nature of a single murder case and all that it represents. Already familiar with Mexican culture, politics and journalism, Corcoran, as Associated Press bureau chief in Mexico City, had also received threats to her staff by the time that Martínez was brutally killed in the bathroom of her own home in Xalapa, Veracruz. Killings of journalists had been on the rise, but this case was different, not least because Martínez was nationally known: “Everyone, including me, knew she was beyond reproach. I had tried to hire her once.” Martínez was known for covering potentially dangerous subjects, frequently including the connection between government corruption and organized crime. No one in her tight-knit circle of journalist friends could say what she’d been working on when she was killed, and the official line quickly became that she had been the victim of a crime of passion–something none of her friends believed, but a difficult theory to disprove.

Into a mess of stories and theories, and still under threat of surveillance and violence years later, steps Corcoran, with archival research and hundreds of interviews with a dizzying cast of characters (helpfully listed in the front of the book) from the media, politics, organized crime, and Martínez’s family and friends. She brings a journalist’s careful accounting of where truth meets speculation, where the author has chosen between versions of the same story, where corroboration has been impossible. In the Mouth of the Wolf offers the results of this research, numerous unconfirmed theories and the personal story of a journalist chasing an elusive truth. By its finish, Corcoran has become alarmed by the state of the free press in the United States as well as in Mexico, and concludes that Martínez’s unsolved murder–and so many like it–have chilling effects not only on the freedom of the press but on society itself, all over the world. This compelling, carefully researched investigation is a sobering clarion call.


This review originally ran in the August 26, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 vests.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

Love and mourning, betrayal and hope, ancient legends and modern conflicts come together in the atmospheric Cornish countryside in this engrossing novel.

Jane Johnson (The Sea Gate; The Tenth Gift) transports readers to rural Cornwall in the years just after World War II in The White Hare, a fanciful novel of family, village life, history, mythology and more.

In the opening pages, first-person narrator Mila, her daughter, Janey, and her mother, Magda, arrive at their new home, a grand but dilapidated Cornish seaside estate, in the summer of 1954. Timid Mila is fleeing an unnamed scandal in London; the irascible Magda has taken charge of their little troop. Janey, age five, is eager to explore her new surroundings, accompanied by Rabbit, her stuffed toy and best friend. The estate, purchased with unexplained but apparently significant funds, has a mysterious history; locals make foreboding remarks and then clam up. “Best not talk about unlucky things too much, or you may attract unwanted attention,” Mila is warned. Magda plans to refurbish and open a grand guest house, with Mila to cook and clean. Immediately and surprisingly latching on to their odd household is Jack Lord, a local who is (like all these characters) unforthcoming about his past, but handy with repairs and good with high-spirited, imaginative, clever Janey. Things go bump in the night, there are hints of ghosts and old crimes, and the vicar in town is inexplicably, aggressively sinister.

Mila and her parents immigrated from Poland just before the war, so she must deal with several layers of outsider status in this insular and remote setting. Janey and Rabbit are oddly at home in the natural world and its legends, while Mila struggles with local culture; her mother’s hostility is considerable, but Jack’s influence is calming, if enigmatic. The White Hare is jam-packed with slowly released secrets: those between mothers and daughters, those kept by the villagers, and those locked away within traumatized minds. It addresses class and war, mysticism and folklore, the persistent influence of history and bloodshed; it dabbles in romance, but remains centrally concerned with the relationships of family, community and place. With lush descriptions of fashion, food and especially nature, Johnson’s prose appeals to sentiment and expertly evokes an often-menacing mood. The intrepid, uncanny Janey and her Rabbit, however, joined by several wise women of the village, offer hope that Mila and her family can move into a happier future in the end. The White Hare is enthralling, as filled with secret passages as the stately home in which it’s set.


This review originally ran in the August 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 Latin phrases.

Utopia by Heidi Sopinka

Art, gender, love and friendship are all under consideration in this novel of twisted relationships in the 1970s L.A. art scene.

Heidi Sopinka’s Utopia opens at a party with the first-person perspective of Romy, a performance artist, directly addressing her months-old daughter. The evening ends with an unexplained tragedy, and from there the novel jumps forward some months to follow a young woman named Paz, who is now raising Romy’s baby and is married to Romy’s husband, Billy. It is 1978, and Paz, Billy and all their friends are steeped in the Los Angeles art scene, where sex, drugs and free expression are soured by competition, infighting and wildly different rules for male and female artists. Paz attends women’s groups and wishes for a freer life for herself, but many women see her as having taken over Romy’s life in decidedly unfeminist fashion. Romy, the more successful and established artist, casts a long shadow; Paz loves Billy but is perhaps more in love with Romy, whose life and art obsess her. Caring for Romy’s baby, lost in reading Romy’s journals, Paz finds herself in something of a love triangle with a ghost, and begins to lose grasp of her own life and art. And then a postcard arrives, apparently from Romy. It is labeled “disappearance piece.”

Utopia cleverly investigates layers of social issues: feminism and its intersections with race and class; gender roles in life and in art; women’s relationships; the artist’s relationship to commerce and social justice. The central narrative belongs to Paz, but that narrative is always shadowed by Romy, and intermingled with Romy’s voice via her journal entries. “Everything Romy said assumed importance. She lived her life so strongly.” The two women and all they have in common (including an art-star husband and a baby) offer plenty of room to examine questions about art and gender. Paz’s best friend Essa (also an artist and mother) is another powerful character and model for Paz to chart her own path. They are surrounded by other women of the art scene and feminist groups; the novel is populated by strong women questioning norms.

Sopinka (The Dictionary of Animal Languages) excels in characterization and the evocation of the power of creation. In pursuing her predecessor’s mysterious end, Paz must put herself in real danger and explore the very edges of not only art but existence. “She’s driving a speed addict’s car in an inside-out shirt, on painkillers, with a hand wrapped in gauze, on her way to find her husband’s dead ex-wife. If she concentrates hard enough, these things will snap into a logical pattern.” By the time the perspective shifts to that of a third woman near the novel’s conclusion, Utopia has asked that the reader journey through some weighty questions–but all will be rewarded.


This review originally ran in the August 16, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 matches.

Curing Season: Artifacts by Kristine Langley Mahler

These experimental essays about place, home and the failed effort to belong are closely tied to Eastern North Carolina, but will resonate everywhere.

Kristine Langley Mahler’s Curing Season: Artifacts is an essay collection selected for West Virginia University Press’s In Place series, which features strongly place-based literary nonfiction. In these often experimental essays, Mahler considers a brief but powerful part of her youth spent in eastern North Carolina: four years of preadolescence in which the young Mahler struggled with feeling that she didn’t belong. While this is arguably a universal preadolescent experience, Mahler’s story is indelibly linked to the community in which she lived, made and lost friends and attended school.

In Pitt County, N.C., the author encounters matters of race and class for the first time. The profitable sale of her family’s home in Oregon has enabled them to enter a prosperous suburb where her neighbors attend cotillion. White children, like Mahler, who go to public school are bussed into a majority-Black part of town as part of 1990s desegregation efforts. Her neighbors’ families seem to all rely on generational relationships to the place. She feels her outsider status at every turn. Also characterizing Mahler’s experience are difficult preadolescent friendships, including the “mean girl” type, and one relationship in particular: Mahler’s best friend Annie, long estranged and eventually deceased. By the end of Curing Season, the troubled, dead friend haunts the author as much as the place does.

While some essays use relatively straightforward narrative storytelling, others are fragmented, rely on images or borrow forms from other works. There are list essays and hermit crab essays based on dictionary entries and proposals for project fundings; Mahler explores astrology, references Joan Didion’s famous rational detachment and borrows lines from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and the local history Chronicles of Pitt County. “I grafted my history onto theirs; I twisted the lessons until I could wring out similarities between my past and theirs; I removed and imprinted my history on top of theirs until I could not tell the difference between their truth and mine.” In blending Mahler’s experiences with those of Pitt County, she digs into the very nature of truth and memory. The author of these formally inventive essays is forever circling both the specific place and the experience of feeling disconnected and othered. “I have returned a hundred times; I have never come home.” She remains preoccupied, even obsessed, decades after leaving, still trying to belong or gain a greater understanding of what didn’t work.

The title Curing Season: Artifacts refers to the tobacco-curing season in Pitt County and to both literal and figurative acts of excavation. Mahler’s investigative ponderings on belonging, displacement and a sense of home are both specific to place and universally familiar.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 stolen pins.

Mother Country by Jacinda Townsend

To crib a disclosure I found over at Tor.com: “The author is a friend, but if I didn’t like her book, I just wouldn’t review it here.”


And what, after all, to make of a choice?

Shannon is an American woman traveling, for the second time, in Morocco with her husband Vladimir, “a man she felt she could never know from Adam.” They have their troubles: Shannon suffers severe chronic pain following a serious car wreck; she is hiding substantial student and medical debt from her husband, who is wealthy, distant and not terribly likeable. They are unable to get pregnant (for layers of reasons and with layers of results, including Shannon’s increasing baby fever). Shannon is privileged but more or less miserable, between the pain, her marijuana habit (hidden from Vladimir), the traumas of her own upbringing, and her desire for what she can’t have. She feels a bit lost, “but it was a nice lost, like being found was just around the corner in some dusty recess of the medina.”

Souria is a teenager from Mauritania, where she has been beset: her mother dead, she is kidnapped and enslaved; escapes, is enslaved again, escapes again; arrives in Marrakech friendless and pregnant, where the abuses persist until she escapes to begin a hard, simple life under her own power in Essaouira, “that frat boy of Moroccan cities” on the coast. She names her daughter Yumni, “good fortune. Success in this life,” and the child is happy and deeply loved.

To Shannon’s American eyes, however, she appears dirty and free-ranging on the sidewalks outside the shop where Souria works. And so the older, richer woman just… takes her. Vladimir’s money and their American passports transform Yumni to an American adopted daughter. The two women look remarkably alike; the child looks like her adoptive mother, such that the other parents in Louisville assume she is Shannon’s own.

I love this novel for its use of repeated lines and concepts, and questions about the nature of choice. The two threads, which eventually meet, are mostly told in the close third person perspectives of Shannon and Souria, although we get brief glimpses of Vladimir and of Yumni (later Mardi). These two main characters are well developed, but I judge them not equally sympathetic: Shannon’s life has certainly been difficult, but I judge her more harshly in the end than I do Souria, who’s had fewer options. There are parallels, though, and both women have the complexity of being neither martyr nor villain. The stories are well told, and the plot is heartbreaking, but the novel is character driven in the end, as well as being about those choices we are cued to in the first line. Secondary characters are delightfully drawn as well, which I always appreciate.

The title teases us, at first, to think about the Black American couple traveling to Africa, but it’s also a hint to themes about motherhood. The child at center winds up with something like two mothers, although a little short on fathers – her biological father is more or less a rapist and more or less unknown, and Vladimir is neither cut out for nor in love with the role. Shannon’s mother is not a benevolent force, and the loss of Souria’s mother when she was young is directly linked to what happens to her from then on. The country of Morocco is important as setting, as cultural backdrop, as a place where Shannon and Vladimir can take what they want. (I also happen to know it’s an important place in the life of the novelist, which maybe doesn’t figure in the novel, except that this writer knows her subject well.)

There are capital-I Issues here, like trafficking, colorism, American privilege, and meditations on motherhood. I don’t find the ethical question to be terribly puzzling – I think kidnapping is wrong whether it’s Souria or her daughter being taken. White Americans adopting African babies creates a problematic picture that’s too easy; I appreciate Shannon’s more complicated role as Black American, and with her own traumas and challenges. The male-female relationships are both beautifully drawn and upsetting in how universally problematic they are.

Jacinda Townsend has perhaps topped her lovely, musical Saint Monkey. This is a beauty, and timely, wise, and real.


Rating: 8 bears.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin remains outstanding. I can’t get enough.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first in another trilogy (hooray!), and again I’m hooked. At its start, we meet a narrator who writes,

I am not as I once was… I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

Her narrative comes in fits and starts; she sometimes has to back up and restart, because she is truly trying to remember as she tells her story. Her mother was an heiress of the privileged, ruling class, who gave up her birthright to marry a man from outside that class. Yeine (our narrator) has grown up in Darre, her father’s land. At nineteen, she is a chieftain there, and recently orphaned, when she is called before her maternal grandfather, effectively ruler of their known world. After considerable travel, she arrives at his court at Sky where he names her his heir, which shocks everyone – Yeine herself not least – especially because he already has two competing heirs. And so Yeine is thrown into a dangerous game of politics and intrigue, peopled by players she does not know.

Except not just people.

There were three gods once.

Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades in between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.

And the dangerous game that Yeine is now playing, against her will, involves various gods as well as ruthless people.

I love the plotting and intrigue, and the characterization. I love the mythology of gods, their relationships and shifting allegiances, and that old concept that the gods are apt to be just more powerful versions of us, in all our pettiness and flaws: “We made you in our image, remember.” There are some positively dynamite sex scenes (sex with a god), and some very relateable human moments: missing one’s parents, struggling to figure out an unfamiliar culture, and (one that the romcoms love) a so-called barbarian wrestling with becoming a princess overnight. I also appreciate the nuances in narration by a character whose identity, whose very self, changes over the course of her story. Yeine’s issues with memory are challenges of perspective, too.

As usual, Tor.com has written an excellent review (in this case by Kate Nepveu) that I’ll direct you to here, borrowing just a brief snip:

…the book is beautifully paced, with plot happenings and worldbuilding revelations coming at just the right intervals to make the book extremely hard to put down. It surprised me considerably more than once, and while other people may be better at predicting plot than I am, the book doesn’t depend on surprise for its force.

What can I say? Worldbuilding, plot, character, narrative voice, twists and turns. Can’t wait for more. Buy any & all Jemisin.


Rating: 8 marks.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

While I’m willing to allow that this might not be a perfect book, it is the perfect book for me.

(I am, however, super irritated by deckled edges, which my paperback does have.)

From the author of those Fractured Fables that I love, this previous (longer) novel is absolutely delightful. I’m reminded of that lovely line from The Princess Bride, about how the story has everything. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” That’s a thing I love in a story: the containing of everything, and that’s how I feel about this book, which (bonus) centers a love for storytelling and the power of storytelling to very literally change the world; and also tattoos.

When I was seven, I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I’m not talking about your garden- or common-variety door that leads reliably to a white-tiled kitchen or a bedroom closet.

When I was seven, I found a Door.

January Scaller is the narrator of her story, and she frequently addresses the reader directly like she does here, which is a narrative device I also like. It’s not the right choice for every story, but here it allows us to feel close to January, who is conscious about her choice to tell her story in her way. Also like The Princess Bride, actually, there is a book within a book. January finds (is gifted? mysteriously?) a book called The Ten Thousand Doors, and as she reads it, so does the reader, so that there are two narrative threads running side-by-side until they, naturally, meet and converge.

January is the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke in rural Vermont. She is seven in 1901, when he takes her on a business trip where she finds that first Door. Her father, Julian, works for Mr. Locke, but he is almost always traveling; January is devoted to him but rarely gets to spend time with him, and when they are together, he is distracted. Her past is an enigma, but she is aware that she is privileged to have Mr. Locke’s favor, especially because she is “odd-colored,” a sort of coppery-red, with irrepressible hair. She knows fairly young that she lives in a world where it is best to be white, and she is not that, but Mr. Locke says she is “a perfectly unique specimen,” and he is a collector of unique specimens. (If this makes you uncomfortable, good.) “Sometimes I feel like an item in Mr. Locke’s collection labeled January Scaller, 57 inches, bronze; purpose unknown.”

The Door that January finds takes her to another world. And the book she finds later tells her more: that Doors are real and not the imaginings of a lonely seven-year-old. That there are “other worlds than these” (to quote the Dark Tower series, and my references to other stories here should confirm the universality of this story-about-stories). January is eventually inspired, by the book she finds and by events in her own carefully controlled (by others) world, to take the reins of her own narrative. And then things get really wild.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is sprawling, in the best way: January winds up learning about many worlds, about language and languages, the power of storytelling, her own history, the nature of love and of trust, and so much more. She has the most outstanding, incorrigible, infinitely loyal dog ever. And there is a world in which words are powerful beyond our imaginings, “where curves and spirals of ink adorn sails and skin.”

I do not mean they have power in the sense that they might stir men’s hearts or tell stories or declare truths, for those are the powers words have in every world. I mean that words in that world can sometimes rise from their ink-and-cotton cradles and reshape the nature of reality. Sentences may alter the weather, and poems might tear down walls. Stories may change the world.

Now, not every written word holds such power–what chaos that would be!–but only certain words written by certain people who combine an innate talent with many years of careful study, and even then the results are not the sort of fairy-godmother-ish magic you might be imagining…

I am, personally, additionally charmed by the power of tattooed words in that other world. You get the idea: this lovely, dreamy, heartfelt story not only has everything, but has a few framing elements – storytelling, tattoos – that speak to me in particular. (I will say that books about the power of books might be taking an obvious advantage, since the readers of books tend to be people who like books. But I’m on board with this.)

In the nature of the finest quest narratives, January is surrounded by a motley crew – a grocer’s son, a woman from another world, that mad wonderful bad dog (whose name is Bad) – and together they will accomplish unlikely things.

Harrow is herself a gifted storyteller. This is a book to get lost in and to stay up all night for. I’m genuinely really sad it’s over; I’ve ordered everything Harrow has ever written. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 10 worlds.

Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth

Mothers and motherhood haunt this alarming, dark, weirdly funny novel of family ties and the power of just the right recipe to heal all wounds.

Ainslie Hogarth’s Motherthing is a grim, disturbing novel of family drama and mental illness, yet a bizarrely funny glimpse into one woman’s mind. In its opening pages, Abby, who narrates, and Ralph have recently moved in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, hoping to nurse her through her depression. But instead, Laura takes her life, Abby purloins Laura’s coveted opal ring and Ralph falls into despair. “Because even though he’d been strong when we’d moved in, strong enough to move in–equipped with resources he’d downloaded from a website called the Borderline Parent, and a swear-on-your-life promise from me that I could handle this temporary uprooting–being near her stirred rotten dangerous things inside him.”

Abby, very much in the throes of dealing with her own mother’s shortcomings and abuse, has identified Ralph as part mother, part god, the “Perfect Good” in her life and “the most genuinely good person in the entire world.” “Ralph would make eggs too, not specially because I was there, but because a person has eggs for breakfast. And soon, I remember thinking, clutching fistfuls of duvet to steady my overwhelming joy, I would be a person too.” In flashbacks to her childhood, she recalls a beloved couch she calls Couchy Motherthing, and constantly circles and ponders the ideal mother figure; she relies on a cookbook “for the mothers of good, happy, wholesome families, with lots of mouths to feed. And that’s the kind of mother I am too, even if I’m not yet”–because Abby desperately wants to have a child of her own, to embody the kind of mother that neither she nor Ralph got to have. She works at a nursing home where she considers her favorite resident her “baby” and, simultaneously, the perfect mother she never had. This fantasy is disrupted by the appearance of the woman’s real daughter, which might just push Abby over the edge. Because paired with her nurturing impulse, Abby secretly harbors intense rage, “murder so much more manageable right now than creating a whole entire family.” Her love verges on violence.

Hogarth (The Boy Meets Girl Massacre (Annotated)) rocks readers via Abby’s turmoil, her swings from devotion to fury, self-loathing to self-aggrandizement. Motherthing keeps readers as unstable as its narrator, struggling to manage the traumas and the waves of emotion. Abby copes with a focus on a few objects that she imbues with special significance: Laura’s ring (symbol of rejection, as Laura judged her daughter-in-law “more of a Kay Jewelers type than a vintage-family-heirloom type”), Abby’s cookbook and the recipes she hopes will save Ralph (an obsessed-over jellied salmon and an unusual iteration of Chicken à la King). The result of these roiling thoughts and images is a darkly comic, kaleidoscopic novel of unhealthy fixations, love, murder, the gifts and wounds that family can inflict and one woman’s fight to save herself.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 little dogs next door.

The Old Place by Bobby Finger

An irritable retiree in a small Texas town stars in this sweet, poignant story about community, secrets and all the ways to love.

Bobby Finger’s unforgettable debut novel, The Old Place, hits the rare and satisfying double note of harrowing and delightful. Roughly 90 minutes outside of San Antonio, Tex., a recently retired schoolteacher navigates various relationships and juggles old secrets in the kind of small community where everyone thinks they know everything about everybody else. Mary Alice Roth is a compelling, although decidedly prickly, protagonist; secondary characters only sweeten this heart-wrenching, warm-and-fuzzy small-town drama.

In the opening pages, Mary Alice is furious at being forced out of her job, and at the young woman–new to town and newly wed into an old family–hired to replace her. She tentatively renews her friendship with neighbor Ellie, hinting at one of the novel’s first slow reveals: the two women (one widowed, one divorced) had sons the same age who were also best friends, until a double tragedy. As readers puzzle over the deaths of Mary Alice’s husband and son, her (also long-estranged) sister, Katherine, shows up unannounced and unwelcome, all the way from Atlanta. Mary Alice continues her practice of bullying and haranguing the local ladies in preparation for the annual church picnic (“All the money spent there, whether on raffles or games or rides or food, went to Him whether you believed or not”). Katherine prods her to take responsibility for an old wrong, and together they reopen old wounds. Ellie privately nurses a new romance, only adding to the ever-twisting mysteries and secrets. Mary Alice’s replacement, the newcomer, offers a refreshing outside perspective as a native New Yorker who is as surprised as anyone at how much she loves her new home.

The Old Place muses over the stereotypes of a town like Billington, Tex., where privacy is scarce and prejudices persist, but where forgiveness and even redemption may just be possible. Mary Alice is a difficult woman to like, but the people who surround her–and the life she’s lived–keep her from being pure villain. By the novel’s second half, everyone is more nuanced than they originally seemed, and the fictional Billington feels as multifaceted and significant as any real hometown. Finger is expert at the careful disclosure of one secret after another, and his characters capture hearts and imaginations. His novel beautifully profiles the iconic small town, both holding it accountable and celebrating its quiet humanity. “Even a town in decline never really stops growing. People may leave, but their stories remain, reverberating in the bones of all those left behind.” At its heart, The Old Place is about the way people relate to one another: family, neighbors, new and old friends. The messiness, pain and grace of these relationships are candidly portrayed in a story that will inspire laughter and tears, making this debut a memorable achievement indeed.


This review originally ran in the July 26, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 tubs of potato salad.

Imago by Octavia Butler

Following Dawn and Adulthood Rites is Imago, the final book in this trilogy, which I am sorry to see the end of. We’ve shifted narrators again: Lilith brought us through book one, then Akin for book two, and now we meet Jodahs, another first of its kind. Like Akin, Jodahs is a child of Lilith’s family, and her own (human-born). When Jodahs reaches metamorphosis, when Oankali and constructs (Oankali/human offspring) reach sexual maturity, a surprise: instead of becoming male as was expected, Jodahs begins to become ooloi, the Oankali third gender that is neither male nor female. Ooloi have extensive abilities to heal and changes themselves and others, and it had been thought still too risky to introduce human-born ooloi at this stage of the two species’ trade. Jodahs is a mistake, and a potentially dangerous one. But it quickly becomes clear that in its uniqueness it may have some special abilities to offer as well.

Imago is told from Jodahs’ point of view, as it struggles with its own needs and the challenges of coming of age. One early solution that is offered to the problem of Jodahs’ very existence is that it be exiled to a ship away from Earth; but Jodahs is a native of Earth, and quite reasonably pushes back against this idea. It’s the first of its kind, not wanted where it is from, and threatened with being sent “back” to a place it is not from. (The parallels to slavery are unmistakable.) It has overwhelmingly strong urges, toward sexual and other connections, but its people don’t want to allow it to pursue these urges, which are natural but also unprecedented (because Jodahs is unprecedented). I am still marveling at Butler’s worldbuilding here, that I’m so absorbed and bought into the rules of her invented peoples. It’s lovely.

There is commentary on human nature: the old human contradiction, as Oankali see it, of intelligence with hierarchical behaviors. Humans among themselves struggle with racism, xenophobia, sexism and sexual assault, and homophobia. When faced with Oankali – that is, something different, non-human – humans frequently react with fear and hostility. Even when they feel drawn to an ooloi, for example (and the ooloi have this power, to make themselves irresistible), they can feel revulsion mixed in. The trilogy has much to say about xenophobia and race, colonialism, agency and freedom of choice, and also gender. I love that the ooloi have to repeat that they are not male and female, not both, but a whole other thing. They still get misgendered and mis-pronouned. Jodah is asked if it wants to be male: “Had I ever wanted to be male? I had just assumed I was male, and would have no choice in the matter.” It’s also about community-building in ways that I love. Building communities, families and societies is just as hard in Butler’s fictional world as it is in any other dystopia I’ve encountered, real or fictional (because people). This is all good commentary on human tendencies, while at the same time being very fine, escapist fiction.

For more, especially some excellent thoughts on the book’s title, check out Erika Nelson’s “Playing Human” essay at Tor.com.

I love this series and think everyone should read it.


Rating: 8 tubers.
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