The Short Version: A elliptical tale of a black family shortly after the Civil War, of the magic that runs in their bloodline, and of the horrors both magical and mundane that stalked the world in the 1870s.
The Review: I picked this up at the Tor Publishing fall party, as I was wandering around the bar full of awkward nerdy types and checking out what book swag the publisher had laid out before us. Part of me was fascinated by the size – a tiny, pocket-sized hardcover – and by the decision to bring some of their best online novellas into print, for easier reading (easier by my standards, anyway). Let me start by saying that I hope they continue to do this, with some of their novellas, as a collection of these slim and small volumes would be a delightful addition to the discerning SFF-lovers bookshelves.
Kai Ashante Wilson – an author I was completely unfamiliar with before picking up this book – was nominated for a Nebula for this story, a fact I also only discovered upon finishing it. It makes sense: this is a potent little tale, one that is more complex than it initially appears, and it delivers… not a unique take on slavery in America, but one that we certainly don’t hear often enough. For slavery, its ghost, and its legacy is the devil in America. Or, well, at least one of them.
The story opens with a quote from the present day, someone called Dad, talking about Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. It grounds us immediately in a context we’re all too uncomfortably familiar with (even more so in the 18 or so months since this novella was originally published at Tor.com – under the keen eye of Ann VanderMeer, ps) before yanking us back into the past, to the late (and sometimes slightly earlier) 1870s. Dad recurs throughout the tale, in little italicized notes that start out as interjections or comments but that soon become somehow related to the tale itself. Sometimes they are editorial in nature, with questions of why the story is doing what it is doing, but sometimes they give us the sense that Wilson is not so much writing a new tale as he is recounting a tale that has previously been recounted to him. The reader is experiencing the oral tradition through the written word in a way that works, and strikingly.
The story that’s being recounted is one of a young woman called Easter. She had a brother who died, she has a dog, and her parents are free blacks in the South (she, it would seem, was born around the end of the Civil War, making her born free regardless). She is touched with a slight supernatural gift – she can, for example, definitely freak out the white ladies at church by accurately telling the weather. She is also, it would seem, visited by angels. These largely manifest themselves as voices in her head but they also seem to be able to affect her surroundings a bit.
The pivotal supernatural moment, however, is when she goes out into the fields to watch her father work. After breaking, essentially, the angel… not machine, not device, but a thing that helped hold the angels in proper formation, let’s say, and the angels disappear and the tobacco crop shrivels and the world goes completely to hell, Easter is at a loss. She knows it was her fault, wishes to change it back. And, of course, this is the moment when the Devil arrives. He does not come as she’d been warned by her mother and so she does not turn her back but, instead, makes a deal to set things right. The Devil tells her that it will require quite a bit of payment, in blood, to set the scales even and Easter manages to push him off by several years. Until she’s 12, which (to a six year old) seems a long way away.
But it’s not, really – and Wilson’s slim tale grows increasingly heavy, and as a reader you wish you could do anything to avoid what you know to be coming next. The trick at the end, which seems to be a happy ending borne out of classical mythology, is breathtaking in its suddenness and further bleakness. The metaphor is one that which I wish I could call belabored, but because it still, to this day, rings so bleakly and awfully true, I can only call it accurate. They shoot them like dogs, those with the power. As though they weren’t human at all. “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.”
Rating: 5 out of 5. The ensuing horror at the end of the novella, you can almost imagine once you know what’s been set up here. The devil, after all, doesn’t always have to look like the devil or even be a single person. The devil can be an idea, a desire, a hatred. And there is nothing more devilish in this country than the belief that a white person is worth more than a person of color. Whether you tell the story with a supernatural twist ultimately changes very little – as the best stories with a supernatural twist should be. It’s no surprise to me that Wilson’s novella was nominated for a Nebula; I can’t wait to read more of his work.