SON OF THE STORM by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Son of the Storm
(The Nameless Republic Book 1)
By Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Orbit Books — May 2021
ISBN: 9780316428941
— Hardcover — 446 pp.


Though a scholar in training at the university of Bassa City, Danso itches for more than the typical Juri initiate. Within the walls of the ancient city, he hunts repositories for glances at forbidden texts the elite have secreted away. But, his gaze also goes to beyond the Bassai walls, yearning to know what lies beyond the Empire borders – wonders hinted at within the suppressed histories he’s dared read, mysteries seen glistening from the eyes of immigrants sworn to silence.

Danso is also physically atypical from those around him. He’s a Shanshi, one of mixed raced parentage with a lighter skin tone that the Bassai view as inferior. Though unable to ever attain the higher caste of society, Danso’s academic skills have placed him on course for a solid future, including arranged betrothal to Esheme, the head-strong daughter of Nem, an affluent woman who acts as the city’s leading Fixer, a tenuously powerful service that is one part feared and one part loathed by the Bassai.

Though on friendly terms, Danso and Esheme are opposites. The free-spirited and wistful Danso looks to horizons and mysteries beyond, with little sense of urgency or worry over immediate responsibility. Frequently late and disorganized, he bears a childish naïvety and aversion to facing discomforting truths that Esheme finds infuriating. With a parentage that also limits her social status in Basa, Esheme purposefully strides toward those challenges that stand in her way to greater power. And Danso is not necessarily a part of that plan. While Danso’s emotions can ultimately drive him to action, Esheme carefully suppresses her empathy from interfering with her ambitions.

The fragile coupling between Danso and Esheme strains further with the clandestine arrival of a stranger from the distant Nameless Islands to Bassa, a young woman named Lilong. Lilong is a Yellowskin, a people of dark-skinned heritage who are descended with an albinism mutation that lightens skin, eye, and hair pigmentation to an extreme of Otherness that long ago exiled them away from the Bassai mainland.

Lilong comes to the ancient heart of the Bassai Empire in search of an artifact that has been taken from her people, an ibor, a totem of bone rock that a wielder with inherent talent can use to channel supernatural feats at profound mental and physical costs. Lilong has one of her own, permitting her to change her appearance and track the totem to where it has ended up: the home of Nem and Esheme. Retrieving it and fleeing from Bassa, Lilong’s actions draw both Esheme and Danso onto separate paths that intersect with her own: three interwoven and transformative journeys.

Okungbowa models the continent of Oon and its Bassai Empire in the Nameless Republic series on the historical Benin Kingdom (Empire) of West Africa, and its city of Edo, later Benin City, eventually of modern day Nigeria where Okungbowa originally hails. (The Benin here bears no relationship to the present-day nation of Benin.) In this he creates an epic fantasy world filled with details and populated with characters that come 100% from West African root inspiration, a diversity of cultural and ‘racial’ elements from within a region that too often is viewed monochromatically by outsiders.

Such focus on West African diversity appears right at the start of the novel in a prologue set right at the literal intersections of political and cultural realms within Oon. Events are triggered in this setting to propel the plot threads of Son of the Storm that then entangle Danso and Esheme in Bassa with Lilong’s arrival. The opening third of the novel works hardest at the world building, most notably the class and ethnicity differences that define Bassai societal structure and views on immigrants. These reveal how such cultural struggles, injustices, and arbitrary ‘racial’ division is nothing remotely new to present day societies or immediate history. On the negative side, Son of the Storm does little to really subvert or transcend the Bassai racism or classism. Yet, I suspect this may be a theme that grows through the series to come.

That opening third of Son of the Storms is an essential foundation to the wonder and developments with the remainder of the novel. I found the pacing to be excellent throughout, but readers who find themselves not gripped by the start of the novel should not be dissuaded from continuing. The characters also start built of seemingly standard archetypes of epic fantasy, warriors, those on quest, those born into a familial destiny of changing the world.

However, Okungbowa does a fantastic job at developing these characters through their journeys, often subverting expectations of fantasy tropes. He balances well between the three main characters, making each of them compelling and flawed, yet capable of growth. As Esheme turns increasing into something more villainous and callous, Danso slowly progresses from innocence (and frankly, stupidity) into getting some sense knocked into him. Lilong changes from an isolated and wary force of anger and vengeance into a more trusting partner who can begin to see possible hope for the future.

The only critique I have for the characterization is in how Danso does often seem molded to obliviously succeed to help move the plot forward. His flaws may limit how quickly he progresses or limit the reach of what he ends up capable of doing, but the supernatural abilities he turns out to be able to command through ibor seems to rely on ‘inherent talent’ without adequate explanation (as of yet.)

The ‘magical’ elements of The Nameless Republic series are particularly fascinating. They revolve around the aformentioned ibor (essentially, this is ivory) as a conduit to the supernatural. Okungbowa makes a point on his blog that this is not an epic fantasy with magic. He distinguishes magic from things supernatural, with ibor being a link to other realms. It may be a semantic issue, but Okungbowa has a lot of interesting notes on the background to the cultures of Oon on his website, and it’s well worth checking all this detail out after reading Son of the Storm.

Son of the Storm succeeds for me because of its rich characters (even secondary ones like Nem – or Zaq, a loyal muscled giant who serves as indentured servant in Danso’s family – become absolutely captivating. It also succeeds in how well it ticks all the boxes for what one might expect from an epic fantasy, while remixing them and casting them with inspiration from West African history to make it all significantly fresh and captivating. Okungbowa also nicely plays with reader expectations for who the protagonist ‘hero’ or antagonist ‘villain’ for the novel (and series) will be, with the trio of connected characters who have elements of each within them.

Warrior of the Wind, the second novel in the series was originally slated for release sometime around now, Summer of 2022. However, latest information seems to be that it has moved into 2023. So there is still plenty of time to catch up on things with Son of the Storm, if you haven’t gotten to it yet. Or if you already have read it, in the meantime for any Stranger Things fans, Okungbowa has a YA novel soon out, Lucas on the Line, writing as Suyi Davies.


SLIPPING by Mohamed Kheir (Translated by Robin Moger)

Slipping
By Mohamed Kheir
(Translated by Robin Moger)
Two Lines Press — June 2021
ISBN: 9781949641165
— Paperback — 260 pp.


Struggling journalist Seif decides to pursue a risky, but intoxicating story: a fresh exploration of Egypt that penetrates into the mystical and arcane realms that exist alongside the mundane, echoes from the past and hopeful susurrations of the future, scenes unnoticed and unfurling outside time. He partners with Bahr, an older man who has recently returned to the nation from exile, and carries within him expertise on the location and properties of these ethereal corners of the ancient land, urban and rural.

Along the journey Seif discovers insights into his past: unexpected connections between their fragmented discoveries and his own tumultuous experiences, between the characters they meet and people who have shaped his own life. Most notable is his former girlfriend Alya, a radiant woman with an otherworldly talent for song who disappeared from his life amid the chaos of the Arab Spring, and its revolutionary potential.

Slipping is an apt English title for Kheir’s novel. He constructs it with a fragmented architecture that mimics the parties and voices within the Egyptian state. The characters fluidly slip through time and space, dry reality and seemingly magical realms, memory and aspirations, in fractured revelatory moments. As Kheir steps around the investigatory tourism of Seif and Bahr, he intermixes chapters of other characters in unresolved flashes, people who turn out to be connected to a spot where the pair eventually visit (or visited). By the end all the loose threads and haziness clarify into coherent interconnected fabric of existence. Again, like a national identity composed of individual souls.

This architecture makes Slipping a bit of a challenging read. It’s a novel that’s short enough to easily be worth rereading, and seeing how things are constructed after already knowing how they all fit together. The challenge of Slipping also exists in its nature of magical realism. While technically qualifying as fantasy for some, it’s not always clear what is real, what is imaginary, what is symbolic, etc. But, in the end, I’m not sure if that matters much. Only in the sense that it gives the novel a very surreal kind of feel that celebrates uncertainty and even a bit of confusion.

Kheir (and Moger) temper the relatively heavy demands of following the plot and characters of Slipping by placing a huge portion of its artistic and entertainment value in the melody of its phrases and the richness of its atmosphere. The mysterious vocal talents of Seif’s girlfrind Alya are in part a personification of the musicality of the language in Slipping, a celebration of a culture and a nation though words. Not only written, but in their sound. Many parts of Slipping are outright poetic, demanding not just to be read, but heard. Performed.

This became particularly obvious to me when I had the opportunity to attend a remote online session organized by the publisher of the English translation here in the US, Two Lines Press [It may have also been sponsored by a book store, if memory serves. It’s been awhile now, at the height of the pandemic, so I can’t recall exactly, apologies.] The event featured a discussion between author Kheir and translator Moger, an enlightening bit of insight into the magic that went into making this text available to English language speakers here.

As part of that event, Kheir read a short section in the original Arabic. I cannot speak or decipher Arabic (though some of my current research students are now teaching me a bit :D) But, my goodness was it a beautiful passage to listen to. I followed along with Moger’s translation within my copy of the book. Like when listening to music with no words or lyrics I can’t decipher (hi early REM and Michael Stipe) the sound of the Arabic conveyed the mood, the emotion, set by the text exactly. Not telepathic, it was empathic. Robin Moger then also read from his translation and spoke a bit about the choices he made when working on being faithful to the text and its musicality.

Even without that event, Slipping is a testament to the power and preciousness of literature in translation. Though a challenging novel in many ways, it is easily emotionally resonant. Anyone who is in particular a fan of magical realism would also want to look into this, a gift to unwrap from the complexities of modern Egypt.


MIGRATORY ANIMALS, by Mary Helen Specht

22138421Migratory Animals
By Mary Helen Specht
Harper Perennial – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9780062346032 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss


About deep relationships that stretch across time and space, Migratory Animals is about the process of leaving home and returning, and more generally coming back to the familiar and strong personal ties after periods separate. This theme revolves around a group of friends who grew close during college, shuffled around, and are now drawn all back together by circumstances.
With chapters alternating between the points of views of each friend, the predominant and central point is Flannery, a climatologist who has lived the prior years in Nigeria, a spot she now begins see as another home. Flannery returns home to Austin, Texas, where her sister Molly has begun to show signs of Huntington’s disease, an inherited affliction that slowly killed their mother. Left behind by Flannery in Nigeria is her research position and a new fiancé. Flannery is thus burdened both by the uncertainty of her sister’s health and of when she will be able to return to her life in Africa.
Migratory Animals delves into the network of relationships and uncertain futures that surround all of these friends, as they are each challenged by the particulars of the present and the memories of the past. With a plot and themes that are relatively straight-forward, Mary Helen Specht’s novel on the surface appears to be unremarkable. However, what sets it apart as extraordinary how effectively she makes it all seem simple, and easy. Juggling a handful of points of view and a web of interactions, Specht successfully gives each character their unique vision and voice that gel together into a cohesive narrative, and a strong reflection of realism. Flannery and Molly, for instance, share some aspects of voice, personality, as you might expect sisters would, yet have individual highlights and faults.
Another quality to this novel that I greatly appreciated is that the narrative does not rest on outright strife. Their are challenges, sure, but this isn’t yet another literary novel about failing relationships due to poor communication and flawed personality. The characters aren’t rosy, but they are working through any darkness.
Specht’s writing is enthralling and there are layers both to her characters and to the symbols that populate the text. The novel will get you thinking about things like home, nostalgia, family, healing, and schism. While there isn’t much meat here in terms of plot, enough is present for any reader who like character driven fiction.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Harper Perennial via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0062300709
272 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Understated and deceptively simple, “All Our Names” is the type of novel where you need to stop yourself and allow sentences and passages to digest fully before moving on. It is all too easy to enter this story, fly through its pages without ever becoming engaged and simply write it off as insubstantial. It is not a novel where you enter the narrative flow of its plot and it to sweep you away. It requires attentiveness and personal reflection.

In other words, for its appreciation, Mengestu’s novel requires the reader behaves completely unlike its characters. In “All Our Names” the two point of view characters, Helen and Isaac (who has many names), have become disengaged from their lives. In the case of Isaac, this occurs through the process of living through a tumultuous period in post-colonial Uganda, where through a dear friend he becomes involved in political revolution. This history, leading to the violence and trauma that ultimately brings him to flee to the United States as an immigrant, is related in chapters that alternate with those from the point of view of Helen, a social case worker who is assigned to Isaac upon his arrival in the US Midwest. Helen has an almost immediate attraction to the distant, kind, and out-of-place Isaac. Their relationship pulls Helen further from her familiar job and relations in favor of experiencing simple existence in the company of Isaac.

This creates an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand the characters are extremely distant, from one another and from the reader. We know few details about them, and even after learning the full story of Isaac’s past, we still no so little of him, not even his ‘real’ name. We learn little more about Helen. And each seems strangely indifferent to the lack of knowledge about one another. They are largely strangers, and while they have a certain curiosity, the point is not pressed. It doesn’t drive apart the relationship. Because ultimately, despite this distance of knowledge, emotionally the two are profoundly close. Isaac’s relationship with his friend in Uganda (also named Isaac, whose name he ‘took’ when fleeing to the US) is similarly based on a deep love without knowing the precise details of one another’s history.

The novel thereby seems to resonate around this idea that identity is superfluous, ultimately inconsequential, particularly when looking on this grand scale of national politics and social upheavals, from the revolutions of Uganda, to the racism of Jim Crow America. The characters in “All Our Names” have discovered that these labels that we use to identify one another: black, white, rebel, patriot, nationalist, immigrant, native, Isaac, Dickens, whatever – they ultimately are agents of division. Isaac (while either in Africa or North America), and Helen through association with him, have found deep human relationships of love to carry them through the tides of events, of uncertainties and new lands. They are no longer engaged with what is happening around them, they are not trying to control it, they are simply abiding, and living in a hope for a future. And they seem to have a realization that this relationship can transcend place and time.

Typically, I will enjoy novels more that achieve a sort of beauty coherent with the story that will also make the plot and characters a bit more developed and intimate. However, here I can’t criticize Mengestu for not doing this, because I read it as necessary to what he is trying to accomplish with this novel. While this isn’t my personal favorite kind of novel to read, I can appreciate the power and control of the writing he has produced here.

Five Stars out of Five

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne
Publisher: Crown
ASIN: B00GVZZL7A
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

The blurb for Monica Byrne’s debut novel compares it to elements from the works of three authors. Often I don’t care for these kinds of comparisons, and never put much faith in them. In this case while I don’t particularly see the Gaiman comparison (and I don’t even recognize Morgenstern), the similarities in themes to Atwood are warranted to my mind. In terms of genre there is a match in literary style and depth with strong undertones of science (or Atwoodian ‘speculative’) fiction, where near-future technology ends up both drawing people together while leading to their exploitation or estrangement. There is also a strong sharing of themes, with Bryne here tackling complex biological and social issues of gender and sexuality, and to a lesser extent issues of spiritual faith.

“The Girl in the Road” is actually a contrapuntal novel of two girls from two periods of time and two places (India and Africa). There stories are related in alternating chapters, but are intertwined both symbolically and ultimately in reality. Certain parts of it are written in a fashion that approaches magic realism, which may have engendered the comparisons to those other authors, but mostly the story resides in a speculative reality that feels familiar and emotionally fragile. With well-rendered moments of beauty, resilience, despair, and ugly tragedy alike, Bryne’s writing demonstrates a tremendous range in capturing mood and emotion. Although some may struggle through some of the more intense passages or may be confused by some of the more surreal moments, I think the novel is worth making the effort to work through them each.

I do wish the closing chapters of the novel had been more drawn out; the ultimate convergence of the two storylines seemed to happen to rapidly given the slow establishment of each thread and the journey to reach their meeting. This is, however, a minor quibble with what is really a consistently captivating and purposeful novel. I highly recommend giving it consideration to read.

Four Stars out of Five

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe
Publisher: Soho Press
AISN: B00E2RWQJU
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Source: NetGalley

Foreign Gods, Inc. is one of those novels that can be deceptively simple. A well-educated Nigerian man, Ike (Eee-kay), struggling to make ends meet personally and professionally in the US returns to his home village in Nigeria, resigned to steal the local deity, a pathetic plan born of despair to sell the statue to a unique antiquities shop in NYC that offers statues (embodiments) of exotic gods to wealthy collectors. The novel is split between four segments: in NYC, in Nigeria, and back in NYC. Prior to the Nigerian setting that takes up the bulk is a historical ‘retelling’ of the village’s introduction to the missionary who ‘Christianizes’ them and his ‘battles’ against the Nigerian deity, a conflict that still continues in the present day village that Ike returns to.

One theme of the novel is clearly despair and the actions that it drives people to take as they cling on to hopes and beliefs. This imparts a particular darkness to the book overall, it is not by any means a ‘happy story’. Yet, Ndibe manages to keep that tone of despair to a gentle pervading undercurrent up to the novel’s conclusion. With the heaviness of the plot, Ndibe infuses Ike with a humor of absurdity, so that even in the lowest of situations or scenes there remains a bit of the comic, creating a despair that you almost laugh at in realization of the futility in fighting back. Writing in third person, but from the limited POV of Ike, Ndibe also makes the writing lighter and unencumbered, staying true to Ike’s personality: perfect, precise grammar and vocabulary, but blithe and foolishly optimistic.

Beyond the straight-forward plot, Foreign Gods, Inc. says a lot about the cultural history and relations of the West and Africa, from the modern-day exploitation by the shop, to the manipulative brand of ‘Christianity’ exploiting the villagers. Yet, it is not merely critical of the West, but also characteristics of the Nigerian, past and present, such as government corruption… more exploitation.

And I guess that is another major theme here, exploitation of those that are filled with despair. At first I found the historical segue into the Christian missionary who began the ill-conversion of the village to be oddly out-of-place in the scheme of the novel as a whole. It parallels the present-day Nigerian conflicts Ike finds himself embroiled within, but it also highlights how similar Ike ends up being to that Missionary, fueled by an almost insanely naive hope and optimism at the ultimate ‘rightness’ of their actions, certainty if they can just manage to accomplish one small goal that all of their problems will be solved, that a people’s spirits will be saved, or Ike’s existence will. In the end each of them act in such pathetic despair that they lose a certain humanity, becoming an embarrassment, a shell of what they were.

I appreciated the depth that this novel achieves while keeping a strong, simple plot and superior writing.

Five Stars out of Five