Thursday, 1 January 2015
Review: Redemption in Indigo
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read fantasy and science fiction, in part, to expose my mind to new perspectives, to the situations of people with very different backgrounds to my own, who nevertheless have a basic kinship to me so that I can identify with their struggles. It seems natural, then, to expand my reading beyond British and American writers of European descent, and take in some fiction by people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds from my own.
There's a small, but flourishing, group of Caribbean writers of African descent working in SFF at the moment, and I'm starting to read their work and, so far, finding it excellent. I very much enjoyed N.K. Jemison's first book (note: it's been pointed out to me that Jemison isn't, in fact, Caribbean), and this work of Karen Lord's is just as good. The language, for instance, is highly competent, more so than in all but a few books I read (like me, Lord has a degree in English language, and it shows). Even though it's told in the voice of a traditional storyteller, with the simplicity and directness of style that implies, it's a beautiful simplicity and directness. It's also flawlessly edited - meaning, most likely, that it was close to flawless when it was submitted.
The narrator's voice is very much present, saying things like "Perhaps I will tell you about it later, if we have the time." That's unusual in current writing, where the fashion is for a third-person narrative that tries to make the narrator disappear, and shows us the events from the perspective of the participants without quite using their first-person voices. (YA and urban fantasy are frequently exceptions, pulling out the full first-person perspective.) I found this evident narrator, displaying biases and assumptions openly, a refreshing change. At one point, the narrator says "The village court of Makendha, like village courts the world over..." Of course, as the author is well aware, village courts don't exist the world over, but in the world of the narrator, they do - and this is just the kind of thing that narrators, and authors, of Eurocentric fantasy tend to say, displaying their unquestioned belief that everywhere is like the places they are familiar with.
The book even concludes with a harangue to the reader from the narrator, talking about how some people will dislike the characters, and scolding those who don't want to take a moral or learn anything from the stories they consume. I thought this was bordering on too much narratorial voice, and it almost dropped my rating down to four stars, but the story itself is good enough that I forgive it.
The story situation is this: A powerful spirit, tasked with looking after humanity, has come to have a degree of contempt for them, and his power has accordingly been confiscated and handed over to a human. This human, a woman who's separated from her deeply flawed husband and whose most distinctive skill is an amazing ability to cook, has a number of adventures in which both she and some of those around her learn a great deal and change their perspectives on life.
That's the core story. However, it starts with the story of the idiot husband, and finishes with the story of the woman's sons, and both of these stories interact with the main story, giving and receiving light. It isn't a straightforward through-line such as I'm used to in fiction. Told in a different style, the beginning and end might seem tacked on, and an editor might prune them away, but told in the way this story is told, they both contribute to the whole book for reasons that are more related to theme and character than they are to plot, strictly defined.
The characters are beautifully drawn, from the trickster who finds himself becoming responsible to the main character, a strong woman whose strength is nothing at all to do with combat and whose greatest skill isn't used to resolve the plot (though it is important to building the character relationships). It's as far from a fantasy novel based on someone's game of D&D as you can get.
I've been reflecting lately that there are two major kinds of genre writing. The first kind is simply an adventure: unusual things happen to a character and they deal with them. Adventures are wonderful, and I enjoy them. What makes a much more lasting impression on me, though, are books of the second kind, in which the adventure points beyond itself to insights about human experience in general, of which the adventure is one example. This is a book of that second kind.
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