Dawn by Octavia Butler

I thought Kindred was good, but Dawn has blown me away. The former was an excellent and thought-provoking book but (at least at this distance of memory) not something I quite got lost in; this one offered a new level of world-building that took me away from my own life in a way I love. It’s still an outstanding work of craft, and offers plenty of serious issues (see the discussion questions at the back of my paperback edition), but it also captured my imagination and took me out of myself. Very special.

Lilith wakes up in a plain room devoid of color and objects, accompanied occasionally by disembodied voices, fed a bland stew or cereal in edible bowls, driven a little mad by isolation; and this happens over and over again. Eventually she passes enough tests to meet her captors, who turn out to be nonhuman alien “people” who inform her that she is not on Earth – Earth as we know it was destroyed in a nuclear war, which she remembers – but on a ship. And, long story short-ish, she is among the few human survivors who will eventually be sent to Earth to repopulate it. But there is a price: the alien people, the Oankali, want something in exchange for shepherding humans out of near-extinction.

Lilith is a special human. She’s been identified as having the right combination of qualities to lead and teach humans how to move forward. This role will come with its own frustrations and burdens. It is the Oankali’s belief that humans have “a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics,” which alone would have been advantages but together may doom humanity. These are intelligence and hierarchical thinking. Lilith’s troop of humans have these characteristics, of course. They are also traumatized by war, and the challenges of survivalism include some tendencies to violence, for one thing.

This is a story about the way humans behave, and about relationships, between humans and also across species with the Oankali. In some basic ways, it reduces to a story about people, which I appreciate. It also considers some more unusual questions, especially because the Oankali have some very novel qualities, skills and abilities, and ways of relating to each other. Sex and gender appear in new ways here, which is thought-provoking. Lilith is a Black woman, which has some implications for her place in a human society, because even post-nuclear-war we haven’t lost our societal issues and prejudices. Dawn deals with questions about agency and self-determination; love, sex and gender; and the persistence of old hangups. I was intrigued and engaged by the Issues, but I was most pleasurably lost in the story and the novel world and people.

Very much sold on this series – I’ve ordered books 2 and 3, and can’t wait.


Rating: 9 breadnuts.

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe’s book is a collection of linked stories – quite long ones – with a handful of coauthors listed, by story (see image below). As the subtitle indicates, the book is a companion, or an expansion, of Monáe’s album Dirty Computer. I know concept albums, and I know accompanying movies (The Wall being a big one for me), but this is the first time I can remember seeing a book version. The Memory Librarian expands on the album’s worldview, and does some mighty worldbuilding; I am pleased.

The opening Introduction, “Breaking Dawn,” was a bit weird and abstract for me; I felt like I was missing something, so it took me a few pages to engage. But the first story, “The Memory Librarian,” took right off. I had to learn about the world we’re in, which was consistent throughout the book – the stories didn’t really have recurring characters (except in the most glancing references), but it was definitely the same world. New Dawn is the authoritarian power, policing its cities and towns with cameras on drones and fearsome Rangers patrolling the streets. People are referred to as computers and must be “clean,” or free from difference, weirdness, subversion, creativity; if they are found to be dirty, they will be cleansed. Notably, queerness is considered “dirty,” and racism is alive and well in New Dawn too. A state-approved drug called Nevermind helps to erase memories; outlaw substances or “remixes” free the mind, in ways that New Dawn absolutely does not approve.

“The Memory Librarian” focuses on a young, ambitious woman named Seshet, with a promising career as (yes) a memory librarian under New Dawn, although as a Black, queer woman she must watch her back hard too. She collects people’s memories (which they can exchange for currency) and helps keep them “clean.” Her own past is mostly lost to her. But then she meets a compelling woman and has to question her relationship to New Dawn, to authority, to her own history, her loyalties and the value of memories and dreams. This story had me fully invested; I was rooting for Seshet and Alethia, and feeling the pressures of their world. Then “Nevermind” introduced the Hotel Pynk, and the gender politics at play even among an apparently progressive feminist enclave. “Timebox” featured a toxic relationship that quite upset but also intrigued me; I think this will be one of the more memorable stories for me. “Save Changes” handles family (and the inheritance of resistance), and “Timebox Altar[ed]” stars children, and brings in more hope than I felt in any previous stories; it has a dreamy, colorful mood that felt good as a way to end the book.

I enjoyed both the stories in their creative concepts and the ways in which they were executed (written). I appreciated the emphasis on the value of diversity (in so many ways) and the importance of art, free thinking, and the freedom to be weird. I liked that these stories trended longer – from 50 to 80-some pages, long enough to get well involved (plus their interconnectedness). I continue to be a Monáe fan, and I’m very impressed with her entry into this different medium. I assume the coauthors brought something useful to that process; and I think it’s worth noting that even though Monáe was joined by a different one for each story, they fit together seamlessly. Someone was on top of the editing. Solid effort; do recommend.


Rating: 7 masks.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is my first Ishiguro novel, and I found it magical. I usually avoid all writing about a book, even down to back-cover blurbs, once I’m committed to reading it, but in this case I’m glad I took a look at the back cover, where it refers to protagonist Klara as an Artificial Friend; in the book itself Klara and others like her are AFs, and I think it’s well into the book before that acronym gets clarified. (I was just telling a student that I need all acronyms spelled out in his paper!) So, armed with this knowledge…

We first meet Klara when she is living in a store, mostly in contact with her friend Rosa (another AF) and a woman known as Manager. Klara is deeply curious and observative, well above average in these ways, and Manager tries to help her and Rosa to be chosen (and promote the store) by placing them in the window, which is also an advantage because AFs are apparently solar powered. Klara refers to the Sun as if he is a higher power, sentient, a god of sorts; ‘he’ is not capitalized but it almost feels as if it should be. The reader doesn’t get any background information, but gradually understands that Klara is for sale, to serve as an Artificial Friend to a child who chooses her. There are a few hiccups in her path, but Klara does eventually go home with a girl named Josie, who is mysteriously and intermittently ill, and who treats Klara rather better – rather more as a real person – than most AFs can expect to be treated by the families that choose them. This is somewhat earned by Klara’s unique powers of observation and understanding. She follows not only human actions but also emotions closely, searching for the connections and causations in relationships. She doesn’t always read cues correctly, but her interest is genuine and… I’m going to say her empathy is genuine and innate.

For me, this is the crux of the story. It seems that this is not true of most AFs (although Klara’s is the only mind we get inside of, as she is the novel’s first-person narrator), but Klara definitely feels. She is puzzled by human feelings and relationships, which she must consciously learn and study, but she already – naturally – feels something for them. Josie matters to her from the beginning. Josie’s mother (“the Mother”) likewise draws her empathy, although she is slower to treat Klara like a real person. I’m reminded of The Robot in the Garden, a very different book but one that also addresses questions of humanity via nonhuman characters. It’s a neat trick. Additionally, the outsider’s perspective (here, a person who’s not quite human) allows for direct observation of the human experience that a human character couldn’t make in a work of fiction without it feeling weird and forced.

Other details of Klara and Josie’s world that we slowly puzzle together: Josie is “lifted,” or (in some unexplained way) genetically modified for higher academic/intellectual performance, which is an advantage that most children apparently receive – or most in her social milieu? This comes with some disadvantages, too, though, including social ones. Josie’s lifelong friendship with a neighbor – which they would like to develop into something more – is hindered by his not having been lifted. There’s plenty to explore here metaphorically, too, not only about what constitutes advantage (and at what cost), but also about relationships across societal boundaries. I find many parallels with the story I’ve just finished teaching this week: “Who Will Greet You At Home,” by Leslie Nneka Arimah, which also literalizes some metaphorical real-world truths to illustrate them more clearly. I am a fan of this technique.

It’s a beautiful, thoughtful book, clearly written by a master. Evocative, with lovely descriptions. Klara’s voice (again, in first person) has a formality to it that nods toward her extra-humanness, but also highlights the observations she can make that a human cannot. Her appreciation of simple vistas is sublime. I am charmed by her Sun-worship. There is something about her – vision? or her appreciation of sunlight? I’m still not sure what it is – that sometimes divides her view into grids, which I found fascinating; I wish I understood better what was going on there, and wonder what else I’m missing here.

I love it. I’m not sure I entirely understand it, but I love it: the magical wonder of Klara’s unique voice, the precocious sweetness of Josie’s relationship with her mother, the curious rules of this world. Definitely interested in more of Ishiguro’s work.


Rating: 8 alcoves.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is Book three of the Broken Earth trilogy (following The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate). I raced through this series and am now a firm Jemisin fan. I’m just trying to take a breather before I begin the next of her trilogies, to make them last.

Book two left us with a fairly clear trajectory for this last installment: mother Essun and daughter Nassun had been separated for some time (approaching two years) and were at odds. Nassun has found a new parental figure in – of all people – Essun’s former Guardian (and antagonist), Schaffa. She harbors great resentment toward her mother, who was hard on Nassun – for reasons we can perhaps understand, but still hard for a child. (Orogeny may be a fiction, but this parent-child friction is thoroughly familiar.) Essun wants to find her daughter, but sees practicalities as well, and has been developing her own bonds with the community of Castrima, which feels like both a gain and a liability to her. Still the two draw together, and not just because of the mother’s need to be with the daughter. They share an interest in opening the Obelisk Gate, although they mean to do two very different things with that power.

For me, this book fits all the needs of a final book in a trilogy. We got satisfying character development in several corners. The concerns felt like they deepened both in personal realms (Essun, Nassun) and in larger, world-scale areas (literally, the world ending again BUT BIGGER is what’s at stake here; also, development of secondary characters means I care more about the whole world than I did in some earlier installments). By the time we get to the final, highest-stakes scenes, I feel the impact at every level. Pacing is an interesting issue here: I always felt compelled to get back into this story, but I was also able to put it down several times even in the final few scenes. It had a draw on me, but not a compulsory, stay-up-all-night magnetism – and I think this worked out as a good thing, even if it sounds like a criticism at first. For one thing, this book is 400 pages long, so thank you, Jemisin, for allowing me to take breaks. Also, while I felt the momentum of the story, I also felt able to pause and luxuriate in it in a way I found really enjoyable.

Point of view is another super interesting question to consider. Book one, The Fifth Season, was told in third person, in all three subplots. Book two, The Obelisk Gate, was in second person (the “you” voice), with a specific character-speaker addressing a specific character – but I didn’t realize who each of them were until pretty near the end. Here in book three, that same speaker is still addressing the same “you,” but now I’m on board, and it changes the way the story unfolds. It also implies a future, an “after” timeline in which the speaker can address the audience, which is a fascinating trick.

As I consider this series as a whole, I don’t think I’ve given enough recognition to the themes around the environment and climate change, and major, disruptive climate events, which of course are what Seasons are in this world… They are more than the climate events in our “real” world, but analogous, with the addition of a bit more awareness and purpose. Here, Father Earth is a sentient (and sinister – or merely self-defensive?) being, with motivations, prejudices, and grudges. It’s yet another interesting aspect to consider about the world Jemisin has built (especially because I’m more accustomed to Earth being referred to as a mother – Mother Nature, certainly). So much to consider here! and maybe because I’m so enjoying teaching my literature class this semester, but I find myself thinking in terms of some of our elements of fiction – point of view, character, theme – as I write this review. (I just today, in class, compared this novel to Zadie Smith’s story “Crazy They Call Me.” There’s a connection, promise. Extra credit if you figure out what it is.)

I’m rambling now, but that’s still a commentary on this novel and this series, which sends my brain off in all directions. This is good stuff.


Rating: 8 light-starved mosses.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

Book two of the Broken Earth trilogy went past like lightning, unsurprisingly. (Mild-to-moderate spoilers for book one – but not book two – follow.)

At the end of The Fifth Season, Essun – the latter-day identity of girl we knew as Damaya and the woman we knew as Syenite – was hiking south in a particularly nasty Season, in search of her missing daughter. She had picked up one companion, a strange boy named Hoa, and then another, an equally-but-differently strange woman named Tonkee (who we will learn also wore a different identity in earlier times). The extremely oddball trio had arrived at an apparently abandoned comm (for community) called Castrima, where they had been sort-of-invited, sort-of-taken-prisoner into a hidden but thriving comm underground of Castrima. There, other reunions: Alabaster had also taken up residency, for one. Castrima is a unique settlement in that it tolerates orogenes, even works to attract them and is led by one. That doesn’t mean that all relations are good, though.

The Obelisk Gate alternates between two storylines: that of Essun in Castrima-under (in a Season and under duress), and that of Nassun, Essun’s daughter (the first time we’ve met her). Nassun’s story backs up in time to allow us to follow her from the start of the Season, and her father’s murder of her little brother, until Essun’s narrative present. Essun learns more about the various people (stills, orogenes, and stone eaters) she’s cohabitating with, and continues to learn under her mentor Alabaster, whose own story is drawing to a close. Nassun finds a mentor as well, another character we know (and have decidedly mixed feelings about) from book one. She grows as a mightily powerful orogene and begins to navigate the liabilities of that power. Mother and daughter draw nearer to each other, not geographically but in common traits and efforts. Book three seems sure to follow that drawing-together.

The obelisks themselves, of the title, are important to the outcome of the world in this series; their power and the power to guide and steer them are central to the stories of both Essun and Nassun. But they feel much less important to me than the character arcs and relationships at play – Nassun and Shaffa, Nassun and her father, Essun and Alabaster (and Tonkee and Hoa and Ykka and Lerna, etc.). Plus, the obelisks get a little more technical, both in the science side of the sci-fi and the magic side of the fantasy. And that stuff is always less interesting to me than the human element (even where it’s not entirely clear who is technically ‘human’).

I love, love, love the complex nature of this fictional world and how full and thorough its rules and customs are. I feel well convinced that Jemisin has done the backstory work to know how its parts operate even in ways that aren’t spelled out on the page. It’s compelling and absorbing, a world to lose myself in, which I value highly. I’m excited about book three (and sorry to see the series close, but happy to have bought a whole ‘nother one already!). Jemisin’s characters are convincing: there really isn’t a one of them that I adore and admire entirely, because they all have their considerable flaws. But they’re very real, and I care what happens to them.

This writer is a master.


Rating: 8 boilbugs.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

I got sad that there’s still no sequel to The City We Became, so I chose one of Jemisin’s sci-fi trilogies to try while I wait. And it is so good, you guys. I’m already feeling withdrawal from this fictional world.

The Fifth Season is set in a world that keeps ending. It appears to be much like the world I live in now, only much later? (Or earlier? Sometimes the two can blur.) This world has just one continent, as far as its inhabitants know, and it is a very active one. “Like an old man lying restlessly abed it heaves and sighs, puckers and farts, yawns and swallows. Naturally this land’s people have named it the Stillness. It is a land of quiet and bitter irony.” There are ruins scattered around from previous civilizations, that preceded earlier Fifth Seasons, those times when the puckering, heaving land goes a little nuts (tsunamis, blows [volcanic eruptions] and shakes [earthquakes] being the most common issues) and life becomes extra difficult for a period of years. (The book offers two helpful appendices, one a catalog of Fifth Seasons and the other a glossary of terms, most of which were easy enough to suss out by context clues, anyway.) Such an unstable world has sprouted an empire (naturally), a caste system, numerous injustices, and policies meant to help its subjects weather the Seasons: storecaches of food, clear divisions of labor, Seasonal Law. This world is peopled by different kinds of people, too. Some of them are “still,” but others have the power to move the earth. These are orogenes (or the derogatory ‘rogga’), and they can use thermal, kinetic and other forms of energy to control and even cause seismic events. Some of them are controlled and wielded in turn, so to speak, by a class of persons known as Guardians. And then there are the stone eaters…

Jemisin’s narrative centers around three characters, three woman orogenes, in three different, distressing points in their lives. We learn about the possible paths for orogenes from their experiences. One of them is navigating a Season after having just lost a child. Another has been trained at the Fulcrum, and is now being sent out on a humiliating assignment. And one is just a girl, frightened of her own power and identity, newly embarked on the world. As each woman’s story advances, we learn more about the single world they share. There are secrets to be revealed, but not much goodness. (When I say I miss this fictional universe, it’s not because it’s pleasant.) I love a big, complex otherworld. And I loved these characters – not just the main three, but a few others as well. Jemisin’s characters have facets and nuance. I appreciate characters who can be flawed and problematic and maybe not people I’d even want to be friends with, but with whom I can feel such strong connections. That’s true to life.

Also, there are pirates.

Lovely worldbuilding, full and complex and deeply layered, plenty deep enough to get lost in. Despite the presence of those two appendices, which I didn’t find until the end!, I was always more or less clear on what was happening (also true to life: when are we ever on entirely solid ground?). Great characters, beautiful writing, opportunities for philosophical pondering, and some superlatively clever plotting. This book has it all; what’s not to love? Jemisin is a rock star (no pun intended).

I’ve already ordered books 2 and 3 in this trilogy, obviously. And somebody had the very clever idea to include, at the back of this book, snippets from the first books in two other Jemisin trilogies as well, so I ordered one of those at the same time. Good thing she’s written plenty. Stay tuned.


Rating: 8 kirkhusa.

Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

I am sad to see book 3 of this trilogy go by. Liz, what’s next?

With Aurora Rising, we met our cast of wacky characters, and saw them just begin to fit together. With Aurora Burning, we saw those bonds tighten even as the group began to be split apart by circumstance. Aurora’s End then brings all the dramas and plot conflicts, large and small, to their conclusions. This installment got still more convoluted in its science, and hit that note that sci-fi sometimes does for me, where it made me glaze over a bit: I just let the science go by and trust that it makes sense. It was definitely fun to mix up some timelines, I’ll say that. I am sorry to see it all come to an end, obviously, but I feel really good about where Kaufman and Kristoff left my new friends. There was some trickery right at the very end, but they brought it all around. And they are masterful worldbuilders; I’m going to look into their other work and see if there’s more there for me. This trilogy was such a treat as absorbing escapism, and I really needed that.


Rating: 8 gremps.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Good thing I got on top of ordering books 2 and 3 in this series; I couldn’t wait long after Aurora Rising, could I! I raced through these 500 pages and I don’t think it’ll be long til I’m in book 3, sadly the last one. Very fine pacing and invisibly-easy-to-read prose make for a lovely indulgent time. I need so much more like this (Liz, keep ’em coming).

Where Aurora Rising offered lots of delightful comedy in between its world-endingly-high stakes, Aurora Burning gets a little more serious. It’s right there in the titles: in book 1, Aurora (and our team, and the plot) were on the upswing, and now we are settling into the action, with increasing temperatures in several senses, and no margin for error. We see the development of one deeply intense romantic relationship, and otherwise a bunch of flirting and sexual tension, because these are just teenagers, folks – something we rarely forget because they behave like teenagers, but also sometimes forget, because they’re carrying the weight of worlds, and it’s really too much for the kids that they are. (Also, I love that everybody just loves [flirts with, has sex with] whomever they please, with little bother over gender. It’s refreshing.) We lose some people (‘people,’ to use the term loosely), and we uncover some damaging secrets. We also gain another sibling: it turns out Kal has a sister, whose personality and values are quite opposed to his own, with several comparisons to the contrasting closeness between twins Ty and Scar. Kal’s sister is the source of pain and anguish, but also some much-needed comic relief.

I don’t want to give too much away, but this middle book of the trilogy ends us in truly dire straits. I’m not sure how long I can hold off on the final installment, Aurora’s End (foreboding, that, although I’ll choose to read it as the end of the series, thank you), although the longer I wait the longer I get to spend in this world before it’s gone…

The Kaufman & Kristoff writing team is outstanding. Pacing and voice are perfect. I disappear into these pages and lose track of the world. I don’t believe I mentioned in my earlier review that there is a fairly sentient, very advanced smartphone-type-devise (a uniglass, here), named Magellan, that has a personality its own and narrates short informational sections as well as speaking to (haranguing) our squad, and this detail is genius. Give me more.


Rating: 8 gifts.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Big winner from Liz again; this was just the absorbing, sci-fi-fantastical otherworld I needed in between heavier reads. Before finishing it I’d sat down and ordered the other two books in the trilogy (from my local online* bookstore, Gaslight), and I wish they were here already.

Aurora Rising is set in 2380, and begins at the Aurora Academy, where students graduate into the Aurora Legion – sort of a United Nations made up of both humans and alien species, to peacekeep throughout space. These teams are made up of teenagers, because the physiological challenges of deep-space Fold travel are only for the very young. (This will add to the drama.) Chapters are told from different points of view, but we begin with Tyler Jones, prettyboy and star student, top of his class in the Alpha track. Alphas will head up their squads; they are strategists and leaders. Tyler was poised to get to cherrypick his ideal squad and likely get the choicest mission assignment, but things went a little sideways, and he found himself saddled with odds and ends instead – happily, including his twin sister Scarlett and their shared best friend since childhood, Cat. (Scarlett is the squad’s Face, or diplomat, multilingual and people-skilled. Cat is their Ace, or pilot, as cocky and short-fused as Aces are stereotyped to be.) They get sent on a terrible mission to start their new careers: boring, distant, low-consequence. Or is it?

Tyler’s accidental misadventure, which cost him his pick-of-the-litter squad, was rescuing “the girl out of time”: Aurora (or Auri) has been in cryo-sleep for two hundred years. She was en route to the colony where her father lived, but the ship never arrived, and she is its sole survivor. Her father’s colony has been erased. And some very dangerous people seem to care very much what happens to Auri. Luckily, she falls in with this ragtag squad of losers: Tyler, Scarlett, Cat, Finian (nonhuman, the group’s differently abled Gearhead), Zila (socially awkward, or possibly sociopathic, Brain – responsible for scientific and medical expertise), and Kal (their Tank, or warrior, of a much-maligned alien species recently considered an enemy of the Terrans, or humans). Together they form “the strangest group of misfits that ever trekked across an abandoned alien planet beset with creeptastic plants and besieged by military forces,” which is a great line. I’m pretty intrigued by the intersection of plant life, beauty, and horror.

Thick greenery blooms from its eyes, its back is covered in a tangle of beautiful flowers, and when it opens its mouth to snarl its defiance at him, I see reddish-green leaves all the way down its throat.

What with sibling antics (Tyler and Scar), bestie vibes and hijinks (Scar and Cat), romantic and sexual tensions (several), awkward geekiness (several), and extreme danger and high stakes, this novel offers a charming blend of pathos, angst, and superlative, laugh-out-loud comedy. I stayed up to unhealthily late hours because I couldn’t put this book down; I was completely absorbed and in love with our dear, silly, impassioned young heroes. Also, check out this Princess Bride reference.

“Anyway, are you sure you’re not making them up? They sound ridiculous. I mean, hairy dirtchildren who fly spaceships and have almost identical DNA to you lot?” I scoff. “I don’t think they exist.”

And that’s when a snarling, furry pitch-black humanoid thing with jagged yellow teeth that would put an ultrasaur to shame comes screaming out of the undergrowth and straight for my face.

(Chimps, if you were wondering.)

There is so much to love here. The worldbuilding is on point (and if I recognize certain elements from The Expanse, what of it?). The characters are darling; who could resist such a motley band of misfits? The action is riveting. I’m hooked; give me more. This first installment ends a little cheesy, but I’m well hooked all the same. Stay tuned for book 2. I don’t think it will take me long. Thanks as ever, Liz!


Rating: 9 costume changes.

*local online? They’re working on a brick-and-mortar, which I badly want, so I buy all my books from them! Cheers, Justin and Ethan!

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

I cannot recommend this to you enough: find something that you believe in, right down deep in the depths of your silvery plumage, and then throw your heart at it, blood and valves and veins and all. Because I did this, the world, though brambled and frothing at the mouth, looked more vibrant; blues were bluer, and even the fetid puddles that collected under rusting cars tasted as sweet as summer wine.

I have so much to say about this book, but in trying to avoid spoilers I think much of it should remain unsaid here.

Hollow Kingdom is set in contemporary Seattle, and its protagonist and most-of-the-time narrator is a domesticated crow. (Chapters do alternate perspectives, so we get a handful of other voices – very colorful ones that make enormous contributions, and come from all over the world. But our star keeps the mic for the majority of these pages.) His name is S.T., which is short for Shit Turd (naturally), and he has enjoyed a good life with his human, Big Jim, and a bloodhound named Dennis with a deathly fear of windshield wipers and alpacas. The book begins “after,” however, and S.T. is here to tell us what happened to Big Jim and his neighbors: we meet the beloved human only in past tense. He got sick and started acting strangely (more strangely than usual), and then his eyeball fell out, and then things went from bad to worse. Eventually S.T. is forced to venture out of the home and into the wider world, where he’ll have to interact with wild crows, for whom he feels mostly contempt, as well as many other forms of nature, likewise distasteful. And he takes Dennis with him, although he feels a similar disdain for the (not so bright) dog, at least at first. S.T. mostly knows the outside world from television and the opinionated Big Jim. And now he’s up against the worst of times with his limited knowledge and his distrust of the natural world – which may be all that’s left.

Among many remarkable features of this unusual novel, I enjoyed S.T.’s voice: salty, foul-mouthed, neurotic, loyal, loving, admiring of humans (whom he calls MoFos – Big Jim’s influence again) and their inventions, sarcastic, self-deprecating and hilarious. He hates penguins (“hambeast-bellied egg timers”) and says of Dennis, “Man’s best friend indeed. More like man’s neediest parasite that would trade you for a bull-penis dog chewy at the drop of a hat.” Squirrels are “five-star sexual deviants” (borne out by later events). The other voices that occasionally interweave with S.T.’s chapters are equally singular, apt, and surprising: there is a Scottish cow named Angus, a young camel in Dubai, and an irascible, tyrannical cat right there in Seattle, among others. (Genghis Cat thinks of his humans as Mediocre Servants, or “dildo-nosed potatoes.”) A very large part of S.T.’s ongoing struggle is wrapped up in his confusions about identity: unmistakably crow, he believes himself to be an honorary MoFo, meant to be human but trapped in black feathers; in the new world, though, he’s going to have to make new allegiances with those who look more like himself. His relationship with Dennis likewise evolves: he begins scornful of the bloodhound’s apparently lesser intellect, but their partnership deepens in tough times, and he discovers that even if Dennis does not talk like the crow does (and as most animals in this world do), he may have a lot to offer. The lessons abound, but Hollow Kingdom never loses its joyful, wacky ridiculousness, even as it gains in wisdom and profundity. Sounds like a hell of a thing, right? This is an unusual and startling book from the first pages, and keeps on surprising to the end.

I also marveled at how many notes I made as I read. I generally make a few notes, but this tight-packed bookmark with overflow onto the other side is rare.

Many of those notes I will not be sharing here because I’m avoiding spoilers. But I can point out that S.T. has a vocabulary: I had to look up formicary, synanthropic, fuliginous, voltaic, collacine, pedipalp, myotonic, and chatoyant. I also loved his use of so many collective nouns: clowder of cats, murmuration of starlings, collacine of maggots, quarrel of sparrows, and of course the constant reference to S.T.’s own murder (of crows) – these are just a few. I’m a big fan of collective nouns.

Hollow Kingdom approaches a few commonly-occurring incidents in literature (which I am still not naming here) with truly fresh eyes. The voice of a domesticated crow navigating an identity crisis in the context of a wider-world crisis is new and inventive. This book is filled with tragedy, but is simultaneously hilarious, hopeful, even joyful.

Trust, it turned out, was a very beautiful and fragile thing with a taste like wild raspberries and experienced only by the very brave.

There are Big Thoughts alongside toilet humor, and commentary on the importance of relationships even in the most bizarrely changing world imaginable. Lots to love. Buxton has a rare and fascinating mind and I love the weird voices she’s created here; I’ll definitely look for more from her.


Rating: 8 Cheetos.
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