Maximum Shelf: House of Cotton by Monica Brashears

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 4, 2023.


Monica Brashears’s House of Cotton is an engrossing coming-of-age novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive. It is also a novel of the lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears’s prose style is sharp and incisive, and the entrancing, distinctive voice of her protagonist is by turns weary, sardonic and yearning. A haunting story and unusual perspective make this a memorable and thought-provoking debut.

Magnolia Brown is 19 years old when her grandmother, Mama Brown, dies. Her absent mother struggles with substance abuse and an abusive partner, so that leaves Magnolia more or less alone in the world, fending off a lecherous landlord (who is also deacon at her grandmother’s church) and struggling to get by. She works the night shift at a Knoxville, Tenn., gas station, where she tries to care for Cigarette Sammy, the muttering man who goes through the trash outside (“the only other Black person I see on this side of town”), between one-and-done encounters executed by her Tinder persona, Carolina Nettle. It’s a tenuous living, and she misses Mama Brown terribly. One night “a whistling man with blood-smeared hands” walks into the gas station. “Hearing a man whistle when he walks in a place he don’t own ain’t natural. Like finding a chipped tooth on concrete. An omen.” When he returns from the bathroom after cleaning his hands, she sees the man is polished, manicured, smooth-talking, wearing good cologne. Cotton offers Magnolia a modeling job, but she’s wary; Magnolia knows omens. But she’s also broke, and quite possibly pregnant.

At the address he gives her, Magnolia finds the Weeping Willow Parlor, a funeral home run by Cotton and his gleefully friendly, drunk Aunt Eden. The pair is eccentric: Cotton needs to constantly finger a piece of pocketed twine to remain calm; Eden is something of an alcoholic and firmly does not believe in ghosts. They are wealthy, and culturally foreign to Magnolia.

Cotton and Eden Productions offers Magnolia a most unusual modeling job: they provide families with lost or missing loved ones a final contact, a side business something like a séance. With Eden’s uncanny funeral-home makeup skills and Magnolia’s amateur acting, Magnolia will play the part of the dead. She’s used to pretending; it has long been her coping mechanism: “When I get this way, when I feel like kudzu is wrapped tight around my ribcage and I’m bleeding a bright heat, I like to slip inside my head.” She slides smoothly into Cotton and Eden’s world and their comfortable, decadent habits: cocktails at all hours, joyriding in the hearse. She moves into the funeral home, lets Eden apply pale body paint to allow her to become missing white women and men, and begins saving her money. The ghost of Mama Brown checks in with Magnolia: knowing, comforting, but judging as well. Reading a letter Mama Brown left her, Magnolia knows “[S]he ain’t left me. I ain’t seen her, but she sits by me. Unseen but real as humidity.” Soon the ghost will be seen as well.

Magnolia’s life becomes split. At the Weeping Willow, she lives in ease and has money to spare, but feels estranged from the very different world Cotton and Eden come from. The relationship is transactional, and she’s always acting, even when the makeup is off. And then there is Mama Brown’s home, where the garden (the place Magnolia still meets her Tinder dates) grows out of control. By tending the needs of the rich white folks who help support her, Magnolia has literally let her own house get out of order. Her caretaking of Cigarette Sammy has become disrupted. Cotton’s requests get weirder and weirder, and Mama Brown’s ghost expresses concerns about Magnolia’s choices, which have affected Mama Brown in the afterlife. The worldly and otherworldly pressures mount.

Set in the grand Weeping Willow Parlor, complete with secret passageways and haunted by Magnolia’s much-loved but literally disintegrating grandmother, House of Cotton pits traditional gothic elements (the haunted castle, women in distress, death and decay) against contemporary questions about race and class and the persistent legacy of slavery. It shares the genre’s sense of suspense and foreboding, but Magnolia’s struggles are very realistic. Her first-person narration brings an immediacy to the events, and an intimacy that’s advanced by her frank voice and turns of phrase. On its face, this is an intriguing ghost story with a compelling, beleaguered protagonist. In its layers, there is much more at stake.

“I am a tattered quilt of all the women before me. I am a broken puzzle,” Magnolia states, but she is clearly a survivor as well. Despite her many fears, she is somehow fearless in pursuing the truest version of herself. Brashears excels in strong characters and deeply felt emotions, and in a robust sense of place: Knoxville shines as both urban and cultural setting and in the details of its natural world. Brashears offers a fresh new perspective on Appalachia and the American South, and Magnolia’s rich voice will echo with readers long after the pages are closed.


Rating: 7 missing fingernails.

Come back Monday for my interview with Brashears.

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

For this review I created a new tag, Oyeyemi, to represent my continuing confusion about how to categorize her mysterious novels. I was tempted to call it ‘mystery’ but I’ll settle for ‘puzzle,’ with suspense and speculative elements, a contemporary/magical setting and absolutely its own set of rules. My enjoyment outweighed my bemusement – not that the latter prevents the former but it can make it a little harder. I am charmed and perplexed. I’ll do my best here.

Our narrator for most of the novel is Otto. He’s on a train with his partner Xavier. They are taking a honeymoon but not really because they are not married. They are traveling with their pet mongoose, Árpád XXX (as in the roman numerals), who is descended from a long line of mongooses called Árpád who have been companions to Otto’s family. The train is a former tea smuggling train with a most unusual full-time resident, its owner, Ava Kapoor, who receives copious hate mail for her family’s past crimes. She is an heiress set to inherit under unusual terms which have led her to live on her train, served by a staff consisting of her girlfriend and a sterner woman with more sinister outside employment… She also keeps a pet mongoose (naturally?!) and plays a theremin. So far I’m just listing weird elements, right? That’s part of the point. There are invisible people, or people who may or may not actually exist, and who may or may not be the same person. And it is on this weird train – whose most unusual cars possess (of course) strange traits – that the partnered Otto and Xavier discover they may have some history in common that they didn’t know about, not only with each other but with Ava Kapoor.

It was a raucous adventure and a puzzle whose solution I’m still not sure of. I enjoyed the locked-room aspect of the train as setting (very Agatha Christie), and the mongooses, and the eccentric old aunt character (who sends our non-honeymooners on their trip), and the questions about art and pursuing one’s creative processes. It is, I think, about that concept of “being seen.” I am all the way off balance about the whole thing but still intrigued by Helen Oyeyemi’s singular mind. I don’t know what to tell you at all; your mileage may vary.


Rating: 8 letters.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

My third Oyeyemi. She is brilliant and fascinating; her books have a momentum of their own. I am often left with the sense that she is smarter than me, that more is happening here than I was able to grasp. Gingerbread was the novel of hers that I most enjoyed, The Icarus Girl was the most confusing, and this one fits in the middle of the list by both measures.

I am going to keep this summary pretty brief, because there are some good-sized spoilers in the novel. We meet our protagonist, Boy Novak, when she is in her late teens. She has white-blond hair, a face somewhere between ‘harsh’ and ‘fine-boned,’ and a fascination with mirrors. She speaks to other versions of herself in them. She may be lonely. She lives in Manhattan with her father, a rat catcher and seriously abusive, until she runs away at age 20. She takes the last bus of the night to the end of the line, arriving in Flax Hill, Massachusetts in 1953 with few possessions, but she is able to start fresh, making friends, dating, working odd jobs, eventually marrying a man with a craft, a family, and a dear daughter named Snow. Part One is told in Boy’s first-person voice, but Parts Two and Three will shift perspective.

I can go no further with summary. The setting remains chiefly in Flax Hill, with exposition traveling to Boston, Mississippi, and back to New York. Oyeyemi’s characters are completely fascinating; among the secondary characters I love most are Mia, a driven journalist and free-thinker, and Mrs. Fletcher, who runs a bookshop and acts as a bit of a community mentor. Boy, Snow, Bird is concerned with race and gender identity, the true nature of love, family dynamics, damage and forgiveness, sisterhood, motherhood, and national and societal patterns around race and racism. It is billed as a bit of a riff on the Snow White tale, but is not exactly a retelling. There is the girl Snow; there is a stepmother who is (at one point) accused of evil; there is something strange going on with mirrors, and not only for Boy. There is definitely some commentary on vanity, beauty, and the shaping of family by these means. But it strays quite far from the fairy tale. Actually, this would be an awfully interesting one to study alongside stricter retellings. I feel unable to say more.

There are lots of images and concepts that I’m going to keep revisiting. I’m not sure I got it all: not always a comfortable feeling, but certainly a stimulating one. No question, I’m going to continue my study of Oyeyemi. Stay tuned. I do recommend this one, and feel free to come back and explain it to me.


Rating: 7 records.

Shades in Shadow: An Inheritance Triptych by N.K. Jemisin

He does not pay attention to most of what he detects via the dark that is his ears and skin and teeth and guts. Most of it is routine, and supremely boring. Stars–sparkle flare sparkle. Planets–spin shatter spin. Life–chatter chitter chatter. The unutterable tedium of a breathing, beating universe.

This trio of short stories returns us to the world of Jemisin‘s Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods, as well as the novella The Awakened Kingdom). Each story fits into the timeline already established by the larger trilogy, with mostly characters we already know.

“The Wild Boy” featured Nahadoth in the early phase of his imprisonment – the god of darkness kept in a pit in a dungeon – and meeting a young mortal with a grudge against the Arameri. This opening story was perhaps the weakest; the (digital) pages turned easily enough, but I didn’t feel that anything new was revealed about Naha or the world he inhabits. It was just a little extra time spent with him, which I don’t begrudge but didn’t advance anything. “The God Without a Name” was of more interest: Nahadoth’s human double for the spell of his imprisonment coming slowly to terms with his post-Naha identity, the emptiness and lack of purpose, his troubled relationships, and eventually his improvement of these circumstances. Finally, I think “The Third Why” was the best of this triptych, neatly linked again to the second story, so that they connect like links in a chain – not only joined by the Inheritance universe but by characters one to another, from Naha to the nameless god to Glee in this third story. “The Third Why” sees Glee leave her mother’s home to search for her father, whose identity is a spoiler if you haven’t read the trilogy… but if you haven’t read the trilogy, frankly, you will have limited interest in this trio of shorts. So, spoiler coming: Glee goes to find Itempas and travel “with” him (they cleverly circumvent the rule that he must travel alone by pretending it’s all coincidence – this only works, of course, if the other gods willfully look the other way). The development of these two characters and their relationship makes this story the strongest in my view.

On the whole, I think Jemisin’s novels are quite a bit stronger than these shorts. (And recall I really did love that novella mentioned above.) The short story format is truly a different art form than the full-length novel, to be fair. And what Jemisin undertakes here is something particular: a further development of a preexisting fictional world. The audience is necessarily readers already familiar with that world. As a member of that audience, I was pleased – increasingly so with each story, which represents a good choice, I think (better to end on a strong note). I would not recommend readers enter the Inheritance universe here, but those who miss our weird pantheon of gods should be satisfied with the small investment in this e-book only edition (which translates to just 64 pages). I’m perfectly happy to have spent my time this way. I am still more excited to get back to Jemisin’s big, fat, juicy novels.


Rating: 6.5 groundnuts.

These Ghosts Are Family by Maisie Card

This was a fascinating journey. These Ghosts Are Family follows a family for generations, from slavery in Jamaica, through emancipation and decades of struggle with old class systems, immigration to London and New York, through permutations of relations, including a fresh start with a new identity (or, if you like, identity theft). The timeline jumps around and the focus and point of view shift, so that readers see this extended family at different times and from different perspectives. Issues of class, race and colorism and the relationships between privileged and less privileged classes, including but not limited to enslavement, will be obvious themes; we know that rape and issues of gender arise under these conditions too. The characters are infinitely fascinating. I was not so much expecting the question of supernatural elements: duppies or ghosts and Ol’ Hige, “a Caribbean version of a vampire story.” By the book’s end, I was left reeling with all the possibilities. There is plenty of heaviness: children abused, spouses failing to see eye to eye, parents and children letting each other down. But there are some quietly loving relationships scattered throughout. As I close the final pages, I’m a bit at a loss because there’s so much to consider. (And because we ended with a decidedly weird trio of spooky vampire children living in the woods.)

The book begins with a family tree, which I did refer to throughout. It presented me with a confusion that was answered on the first page. I’m going to spoil that one here because, again, first page of the novel (and it’s also given away on the back of the book and in most blurbs): the aged Stanford Solomon reveals, on his deathbed, that in fact he is (or was) also Abel Paisley, presumed dead some thirty-five years ago, at which point he took the identity of his friend Stanford. “Stanford” has both a wife and daughter and another daughter out of wedlock, all in New York; Abel left behind a wife and two children in Jamaica when he supposedly died. Stanford/Abel’s revelation obviously affects those around him. But I’m going to diverge from the blurbs here, and say that this is not the event around which the book revolves, and by its end, Stanford is by no means the central character. Rather, he is one branch on the family tree that is the book’s center. He’s just one link, and I don’t think he earns the role the blurb says he plays. Rather, I find the book more about larger patterns – slavery, class and race and colorism following slavery, migration and immigration, gender roles, the persistent damages of all these institutions and systems, trauma, and family dynamics. It’s about the multiple generations of this single family, for sure, but their combined story is very much about those larger patterns and systems. There’s nothing preachy or intentional-feeling about this, but the Paisley/Stanford family is inextricable from larger issues. I put Stanford/Abel at its center only in that he opens the book and occurs at the more-or-less center of the family tree as we find it here. The book ends somewhere very different, and that feels right.

In between, the story is told by numerous voices spanning some 200 years. That multiplicity of voices was a great choice for this story. (I have just said the same about a brilliant novel whose review is still forthcoming: Lookout by Christine Byl.) I love the kaleidoscopic or triangulated perspective on events offered by the different views. And for a novel whose focus is so broad – generations of a family across continents, countries, and centuries – it makes sense to move around like this. I guess such a big story told by one voice (with some kind of time-traveling power, I suppose) would be a different kind of accomplishment, and I can imagine it done beautifully, but Card’s choice feels just perfect here. The multiple voices also allow her to give us different dialects, which add to the texture and richness of the whole.

This adventure into these varied lives is expertly done, not always comfortable because of the subject matter, but engrossing and well worth the immersive experience. Card is a talent.


Rating: 7 names.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

People who move to New York always make the same mistake… They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here.

The year is 1924, and Charles Thomas Tester wouldn’t call himself a con man; he thinks of himself as an entertainer. He’s not much of a musician, unlike his beloved father, but he knows how to put on the right look and scrape a living where he can. It helps to leave Harlem, where he supports his father and himself in a tenement apartment, and travel to the likes of Red Hook and Flushing. There’s risk there for a Black man, but more to be gained, too. Charles plays off wealthier New Yorkers’ search for magic–until he gets into more than he’d bargained for. In Flatbush he meets a wealthy eccentric named Robert Suydam with ideas about how to change the world. An anxious, sensitive police detective and a burly bully of a private investigator are on the tail of the unlikely allies, Charles and Suydam; between them they will certainly change the shape of the world, in unexpected ways.

The Ballad of Black Tom has magic and race and racism and wishes and love and violence and simple street entertainers’ illusions. There are characters from different walks of life – I love the varieties of ethnic foods available in the Victoria Society. Charles Thomas Tester is both a straightforwardly relatable character – loves his father, just wants a little financial wiggle room – and a dangerous enigma. This book is short, but it casts a spell. Victor LaValle continues to intrigue me. Recall that I loved one book of his and couldn’t finish the next. This one is compelling. I have The Devil in Silver waiting on my shelf. We shall see.

Meanwhile, Black Tom will keep me thinking for a while – not least with its final prophecy.


Rating: 7 pages.

The Awakened Kingdom by N.K. Jemisin

The Awakened Kingdom is another Kindle-only novella, following the Inheritance trilogy (of which The Kingdom of Gods was the third book). Thanks Pops for clueing me in!

As is more or less usual, this review contains spoilers for previous books (all three novels in the trilogy) but none for The Awakened Kingdom itself.

This was great fun and went by quickly, and I am quite entranced by the narrator’s voice (I seem to like each better than the last). It takes a little while to figure out who is speaking to us, because they leap right in with great enthusiasm, shouting in all-caps and with exclamation marks: this is a brand-new, infant godling, who is still learning about the world and their own powers and (not least) how to tell a story.

I am born! Hello!

Many things happen.

The end!

(Then our child-god gets some lessons in storytelling from Papa Tempa, or Itempas, who you may remember is the god among other things of order. Later the narrator will also indulge in some Mama Yeine-style storytelling, with the disjointed chronology that characterized the first book in this series. It’s quite cute like that.) We eventually learn that the speaker is more or less female (using ‘she’ pronouns), and 40 days old when we meet her; she does not have a name until she gives herself one, which I’ll use here in the interest of clarity and because it gives nothing huge away. Our narrator is Shill. She was conceived as a replacement for Sieh, the Eldest godling and Trickster; she is frustrated early in her life, though, because she’s terrible at being Sieh. So begins the familiar challenge of becoming, instead, herself.

Shill finds herself attracted to the mortal realm, and travels to one continent in particular where she’ll meet her sibling-god Ia, a captivating young mortal man named Eino, his powerful grandmother Fahno, and the two women who both hope to marry him. In Eino’s society, women hold all the power. They fight and protect, support their families and rule politically. It is men’s job to have beautiful hair and clothing and smell nice – to be decorative, to raise children, and to serve their wives. “Women risk their lives enough to bear children and provide for them by tool or by blade; the least men can do is handle things after that.” This reversal is quite a revelation for me: it’s refreshing in some ways, shocking in others (the patriarchy is so ingrained that it’s hard to grasp), and makes its point so well that it’s almost nauseating – that is, it’s easy to see how unjust men’s degradation is in this fictional world, so what the hell is wrong with this real one, y’all? All of this is fascinating, and it takes Shill – naïve though she is – about a millisecond to see the problem. What she’ll do about it – and what Eino will do, because despite being just a boy he is quite impressive – will change everything.

Shill’s narrative voice does mature some as she does – the exclamation marks fall away and the feelings get a little less toddler-temper-tantrum. But she retains a disarming, downright charming, innocent regard for things being right and just. “ALL EXISTENCE WAS WRONG AND TERRIBLE AND IT SHOULD BE BETTER!” Tell them, Shill! The two high points for this novella, for me, are that voice, and the eye-opening problem of misandry. The Awakened Kingdom is a delight: entertaining, fast-paced, deeply charming, and also thought-provoking. I wish I could read it again for the first time, immediately.

And so, good news: there is more Inheritance! I’ve just loaded up Shades in Shadow, a triptych of short stories from the same world. Hooray and keep writing, Jemisin.


Rating: 9 serry-flowers.

City of Bones by Martha Wells

I went looking for more from the back catalog of the author of the Murderbot Diaries, and here we are with the rather hard-to-find City of Bones. It went by quickly at nearly 400 pages; I found it absorbing.

Wells creates a fictional fantasy world, post-apocalypse, and the apocalypse here involves godlike creatures, magical Mages, and something a bit climate-change-analogous, with fires and blistering heat and arid destruction. A new race of not-quite-humans was created in this process who can tolerate these extreme conditions better than regular humans (who have also survived); humans, naturally, treat these krismen as inferior and discriminate against them. (Kris also have pouches that are involved somehow with sex and reproduction, a thread that doesn’t get quite adequately explored; I wonder if Wells had a sequel in mind?) Our action here is set in a city with a clear caste system. It is physically arranged in eight tiers, and those on top are the elite, while the lower tiers are populated by the dirty and the poor. Water is at a great premium. There are classes of intimidating Patricians and enforcers including Trade Inspectors (who can arrest and abuse anyone who disrupts capitalism), Warders (practitioners of magic who serve the Elector or ruler), and the privileged scholars of the Academia.

Our protagonist is a kris named Khat, who lives in the city and trades in Ancient relics along with his partner Sagai (not kris), living communally with Sagai and Sagai’s wife and children and other non-relatives on the Sixth Tier. Solitary if not antisocial, Khat left his kris community some years ago for reasons we won’t understand for much of the book. He and Sagai are qualified to be fine scholars but not accepted as such, Khat because he is considered subhuman and Sagai because he is of the wrong race. The novel opens with their exposure to a mysterious stranger who turns out to be both a Warder (scary) and female (quite rare for Warders): Elen. She entangles them in profound intrigues involving relics and magic and the most powerful weirdos in the realm. Eventually it will fall on this small band – Khat, Sagai, Elen, and a surprisingly friendly scholar they meet along the way – to save the world.

Whew.

City of Bones has significant world-building on its side. I truly liked all of our main characters and rooted for them. The subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny in this world felt both realistic and familiar, and well handled in terms of nuance. As I said, the plot was engaging enough to get lost in. Wells is showing her talents here… but this is no Murderbot, and I’m not surprised that that later series is what she’s won her more mainstream accolades for. Where Murderbot is snappy and pithy and fast-paced, City of Bones wanders more, sometimes into the inscrutable. Not unusually for me with fantasy/sci-fi, I had to let some of the details wash over me without bothering too much about them. And, as with the krismen’s pouch, I felt there was some background information offered that never got fully used. Now, this could be the author fully fleshing out her world, making sure it had three dimensions even where the reader wasn’t necessarily looking. But it also felt (like I said) like maybe there was going to be more to this world – like a series – than ended up happening.

Solid, good read.


Rating: 7 tokens.

The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

Mortal children are very wise, though it takes a careful listener or a god to understand this.

Following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin’s debut) and The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods closes out the Inheritance trilogy. It is getting hard to parse my favorites out of her body of work, but this one ranks high. (Spoilers for books one and two follow; for this book, however, this review is spoiler-free.)

Book one dealt with Yeine’s relationship with Nahadoth, and her transformation to one of the Three. Yeine and Nahadoth, by the end of that book, had regained power, sending Itempas into exile and a strange, repeating mortality – he can die but always comes right back. In book two, we saw a mortal ‘demon’ (one parent is mortal and the other a god or godling) form a relationship with the exiled Itempas. In book three – as its title promises – we continue to develop the relationships between the Three and between gods, godlings and mortals. Jemisin continues to develop the rules of this wide, wild world – the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the mortal and gods’ realms, the heavens and hells, and the possibilities of all these worlds. It’s quite expansive, so that the surprises keep coming, in ways I really appreciate. Jemisin is not cutting corners, changing the rules to suit her; but she does let the worlds and the rules keep expanding and changing.

Here, the central character is for the first time not a mortal (Yeine, Oree) but a godling: Sieh, the Eldest Child, the first godling, and although he is the eldest, also the god of childhood, youth, playfulness, impulsiveness; he most commonly manifests as a child or as a cat. (He was also the first god or godling that Yeine met, so we have known him longest.) I’m not sure if it’s just that this is the book I read last, but I might love Sieh’s voice best of all. I don’t want to say too much here, but – the world is changing, for mortals and gods and godlings, for the Three, for Sieh, in ways that are both stimulating and scary. The stakes are the highest they’ve ever been. I did not want this book to end.

And, oh! More wonderful news came in the ‘extras’ at the back of my paperback edition: usually there is a teaser excerpt here from another Jemisin series, but this was a short story, “Not the End,” which turns out to be an epilogue of sorts to this very series – I could not have been more overjoyed with that. (The novel itself has a “Coda” but more is even better! Ha.) I would love to think that this is indeed “not the end” of the Inheritance trilogy, but I fear that it’s up to my imagination from here.

I will continue to read all the Jemisin. She’s one of my favorites.


Rating: 9 surprises.

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in the Inheritance Trilogy comes The Broken Kingdoms. (I’ve already begun on book three, The Kingdom of Gods.)

Spoilers from book one – not this book – follow.

So, we are continuing in that world in which Yeine becomes a god – or, lives her partner-soul’s god-life. In this installment, we switch protagonists, but continue with a first-person narrator who is still just learning about the world in which she lives and what role she plays in it. Here, the narrator is Oree, who like Yeine is an immigrant from the outer kingdoms to the center – but unlike Yeine, who arrived with some privilege, Oree lives not in Sky proper but in Shadow, the surrounding city where the great tree blocks most of the sunlight. Oree is a working artist who sells her wares in the street to pilgrims, other travelers from outer kingdoms come to pay their respects. (In the new world, it is uneasily permitted to worship not only Bright Itempas but other freed gods and godlings.) Oree is also blind, or nearly blind: she can see magic. Magical objects and places and people glow, and this aids her otherwise dark world. She lives in Shadow because there is so much magic there: she can see better. Or, to put it better, she is drawn to magic. Vision is a happy side effect. Her blindness is fascinating not least because she works as a visual artist, and does her best work as a painter.

This gives Jemisin the opportunity to do some interesting sensory work, playing with the visual arts and other senses, like the smells and textures that accompany different colors of paint. I love the way Oree’s vision and blindness work with magic. Here and in other plot threads, we continue to develop this fictional world and its rules – what happens when gods and mortals have babies, for examples. Also as in book one, there is a mortal who shares sex – and maybe even love – with gods and godlings. This series does involve romance, and sex. We’re talking about only one or two sex scenes per novel, but they are some of the best I’ve read.

Oree is a lovely protagonist and narrator, with a complicated past, frustrated and foolhardy – or brave – enough to stand up to those in power, godlings, even gods. She takes in a mysterious stranger and discovers a murdered godling, and finds herself embroiled in matters way over her paygrade – or are they? Jemisin continues to explore big themes (like the sins of our fathers, for example). Not for the first time, I am reminded that even in sci fi/fantasy, the lessons can be very much about humans. (I’m thinking again about the Lilith’s Brood series, as well as the rest of Jemisin’s outstanding work.) Also, this series is undeniably sexy. I’m pretty excited about book three, and looking for more.


Rating: 8 windows.
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