Before I get into the heart of the matter, I'd like to say a few words on the author and the English edition of the work which contains two introductions, that of the English edition but also that of the Spanish edition. While I wasn't aware of this when I first purchased the book, Afro-Cuban Tales was first published in French in 1936 under the title Les Contes Nègres de Cuba. Lydia Cabrera was born in May 1899 in Havana and settled in Paris in 1927. While she originally wrote the book in Spanish, she first translated and published it in French. That being said, I'm quite pleased to have read the English edition because the translators have clearly worked from both the French and Spanish editions and included several notes where these two differed. I felt this gave readers a much broader view and you could sometimes question why Cabrera decided to rewrite certain passages in the French translation.
All the tales collected here were told to Cabrera by some of her Afro-Cuban friends. She put them into writing but the reader can clearly see that some tales need to be read out loud and even sang. As it is often the case in African tales, rhythm and rimes are essential.Cabrera's work is not merely that of transcription as Isabel Castellanos explains in her introduction: in some cases, the author has modified stories by adding incidents and characters while others are clearly stories based on old Afro-Cuban songs and in those cases, music is central to the stories. These are not merely legends and tales collected by an anthropologist, it is clearly part of a creative process. It's fiction that incorporates Afro-Cuban traditions and folklore.
A lot of the stories are of Yoruba origin and the translators have done a wonderful job at giving the reader as much context as possible without ending up with half pages long footnotes. The unfamiliar reader (like me!) will get to learn more about Yoruba saints and divinities and in fact, the way they interact and interfere in human affairs really reminded of Greek mythology.
Cabrera's Afro-Cuban Tales are not fairy tales and in the beginning I was somewhat put off by the fact that in some stories, the bad guy wins and an innocent gets punished for no reason at all. Morality is not what you expect or what westerners are used to, but once you've grasped this, you're only beginning to see the richness of the world in which Cabrera's tales are set.
Boundaries are not where we would expect them to be: some protagonists are animals, others plants, gods and humans and all interact with one another, talking to one another, marrying one another regardless of whether they are man, woman, tree, turtle or earthworm. And yet, everything is solidly anchored into the real world as some stories refer to mulattoes, black people and white people, others refer to slavery and to the class system it left once after its abolition. Some religious practices are carefully detailed, some characters express themselves in creole and others Cuban vernacular. While this is fiction, there's no doubt that it is also thoroughly researched and aims at authenticity.
This strange and delicate balance between reality, authenticity and fiction, magic and folktale is at the heart of Afro-Cuban Tales. As Isabel Castellanos explains is in her introduction "What is unreal becomes real, and what is real, unreal" or in Cabrera's own words "the reality of unreality". And in that regard, it appears that Cabrera's work can be interpreted as a forerunner of magic realism.
Afro-Cuban Tales is a rich and seminal piece of fiction that mixes anthropology, history and ethnography, one that I would recommend to readers of speculative fiction and those interested in Cuban and African cultures alike. (less)
The Darkness, Crystal Connor's debut novel, is an interesting blend of dark fantasy bordering on horror, science fiction and urban fantasy that comple...more The Darkness, Crystal Connor's debut novel, is an interesting blend of dark fantasy bordering on horror, science fiction and urban fantasy that completely does away with traditional genre categories. In fact, it does away with a lot of other elements traditionally found in speculative fiction and literature in general, such as the portrayal of motherhood, womanhood and characters of color. Like a lot of debut novels, there are quite a few things to praise here, but also a few to nitpick.
The opening chapters are among the best I've read in a while, as Connor is quick to set up an uneasy atmosphere that successfully grabs hold of her readers from the very start. You'll get chills down your spine by the time you read these words "I used to call you mother". And you'll want to know who this child is and what could possibly have happened for him to hold such hatred towards the one who rescued him. And here's the double-edged sword, because Connor will tell you this story.
She takes you back to the days when The Child was but a child, albeit with extraordinary abilities he couldn't always control, sometimes to dreadful consequences. The novel's pace slows down then, though I'd be hard pressed to ever call it slow, because Connor smartly alternates between past and present narratives. But the novel does start to lose some of its initial steam as we get to know more about Adam and identify with Artemisia's feelings for him. We know he's dangerous, and yet, he seems to be such a cute little baby that it's hard to re-conciliate the initial perception we had of him as a dangerous stalker, lurking and simply waiting for the right moment to strike, and this little child acting like any child, manipulating his environment to obtain what he wants. Again, this was a necessary step in the narrative, the reader's understanding of the past and Artemisia's feelings towards her child, otherwise the ending wouldn't have that much of an impact. But while building up for the ending, it also slowly unravels the atmosphere of gloom and unease that made the opening pages so gripping. And I never seemed to be able to reconnect with it later on. It felt like the fog had lifted and I could see the background tricks. I do realize this is a probably me being picky as I haven't read any other reviews that hinted at this and truth is, I don't think there was any way around it; except perhaps starting the novel at another point? But truly, I can understand that it was too tempting for both author and editor to have the novel start then and loose steam later on, rather than the other way around. Anyway, the character of Adam annoyed me as we got to know him. I struggled to see him as the psychopathic murderer the author wanted us to see, all I could see was an annoying little brat with special powers going through a teenage crisis.
I did however greatly enjoyed the characters of Artemisia and Inanna, both embodied different types of womanhood and motherhood (one could argue that where one is science and rationality, the other is magic and emotions, but it's a bit more complicated than this simplistic dichotomy), but both are strong, ambitious women who will stop at nothing to get what they want and they don't look for excuses or pretend to be sorry about it. I think the novel's greatest asset resides in the opposition of these two characters. Had the novel only included one and not the other, and had opposed Artemisia/Inanna to what I'll refer to as the traditional mother character, Artemisia/Inanna would have inevitably been set up as the dark side, the evil one, the ambitious black woman with an agenda. In The Darkness, because they share these traits, one is not set up as good and the other as evil. Both obey their own laws whether these happen to fit the laws of man or not, both love Adam and want to be a good mother to him, and so neither is good or evil. Without spoiling the ending, if the reader manages to rid himself of his traditional perception of motherhood and what it implies, and simply puts together the pieces scattered throughout the novel, the decision taken at the end of the novel makes perfect sense. That's all I can say and keep this review spoiler-free.
The Darkness is a short novel, with a gripping opening and a shocking ending. And while I do have queries about some of the middle parts, it must be recognized that it's a far from being your usual urban fantasy novel, especially when it comes to the portrayal of women of color and motherhood. Also know that a sequel is in the making, Artificial Light. (less)
Meji is a book belonging to the sword-and-soul genre, a fantasy subgenre.
So what exactly is sword-and-soul? Charles R. Saunders who needs no introduc...moreMeji is a book belonging to the sword-and-soul genre, a fantasy subgenre.
So what exactly is sword-and-soul? Charles R. Saunders who needs no introduction, explains this in his introduction to the second edition of Meji, Book One. As the great man himself says:
"... The potential existed for the conception of many other variations on classic African themes. A limitless number of stories were waiting to be written by other authors. Consider the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways the legend of King Arthur has been retold. That's just one story, from one culture. African, with its hundred of cultures stretching back to the beginning of humanity, offers infinite opportunities for stories of fantasy and sword-and-sorcery - or, as I prefer to call it, sword-and-soul."
Sword-and-soul is similar to the sword-and-sorcery genre in the epic sense, but as opposed to classic tales of sword-and-sorcery, it draws its inspiration from African mythology and history. Most readers of the fantasy genre will appreciate this the same way they will appreciate other fantasy works that don't systematically features elements from Celtic mythology (i.e. elves, dwarfs, etc.).
Truth be told, I've never been much of a fan of the sword-and-sorcery genre classic tales, be it Moorcock's Elric series or Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, both series I've started, struggled through the first books and never found to courage to finish. I never seem to connect with the characters and the lack of interesting and strong female characters doesn't help, but then neither did the plots that I always found too simplistic and made me feel like nothing was ever really at stake. I know these series have quite a huge number of fans out there, so I'm not trying to drag them down, but merely to explain why they didn't work for me and why Milton's Meji did.
The African setting is one thing, but you can't build a series on setting alone, no matter how well you've done your research. And Milton obviously knows his subject and I'm glad he places bits and pieces of his knowledge throughout the story and not in huge info dumps.
As you may have guessed from the blurb, the story involves several different tribes, each has its own language and customs depending on its particular history and the geography of its settlement. This is one of the things I enjoyed the most in this first book; being introduced to all these different people, their folklore and religions, and seeing them interact and clash at times. These political and economical elements are ever present in the story, making for some nice political intrigues and games of power.
Another point that distinguishes Meji from a lot of works of epic fantasy is its characters. There are the twins, yes, but they were not the most interesting characters in my mind (it's probably because book one mostly describes their upbringing and serves as a set up for what's to come in book two). I especially appreciated the character of Inaamdura, who reminded be of a more sympathetic version of G.R.R. Martin's Cersei. In Martin's books, you hate Cersei, you hate her children, you simply want them out of the picture and know that nothing good could ever come from them. In Meji, you understand why Inaamdura does what she does and truth is, you can hardly blame her because in her position, you'd probably do the same to protect your own, even if it means hurting one of the main characters. She's an ambitious, beautiful woman, an expert manipulator who's not afraid to take what she wants. So few ambitious female characters are portrayed in a positive light that it's worth mentioning.
I'm also a fan of the twin's father Dingane, who's not the cliché savage you may initially think him to be. The Sesu people have grown under his rule and there's a good reason for that. Another one that I'd wished we'd seen a bit more is the ruler of the Mawena, the twin's grandfather, who's bound by protocol and tradition and not really free to do as he pleases or allow his grandson to do as much.
Meji is a complex and rich tale of which I've only read one installment! I can't imagine what's to come, but I'm eager to discover. I found it to be a much more enjoyable read them most of the sword-and-sorcery I've read over the years because, despite taking place in a fantasy world, it takes into account questions of race, gender and politics that are part of human behavior and society. That, to me, is the book's real asset.
I'm not quite sure what drove me to buy this book in particular. When I found out that Le Clézio had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last y...moreI'm not quite sure what drove me to buy this book in particular. When I found out that Le Clézio had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, I felt that, as a French reader, I needed to have at least read him once. So I browsed my local bookstore's shelves and found this little piece entitled The African (I'm not sure what it's been translated as or even if it's been translated in English at all. I know some of his works have been, but I'm not sure about this particular one.).
I came to this book knowing absolutely nothing about the author's life or works and I was a bit worried that this might turn out into some colonial like type of narration. And boy was I wrong.
This short autobiographical narration deals mainly with the author's father: this authoritarian, withdrawn and solemn father figure who is a stranger in his own country, in his own family, though, as a doctor, he is entirely devoted to his patients. A man who refused to conform to western hypocrisy and formality and decided to practice medecine throughout the world, namely South America and Africa. A character who has been changed by war and all that he's witnessed and that the narrator only meets once he is 8 years old. They meet in a strange land, when the narrator moves with his mother and his brother to Nigeria to join his father.
A short (124 pages!) touching and intriguing story written in a non linear manner and illustrated with pictures taken from the author's own archives. A great introduction to an unknown writer for me and which allowed me to learn about the author's life and to become more familiar with his soft and poetic prose.
You would thing that the fact that Charles R. Saunders is a writer and a damn good one at that would be common knowledge by now. The man has been writ...moreYou would thing that the fact that Charles R. Saunders is a writer and a damn good one at that would be common knowledge by now. The man has been writing since the seventies and despite the lack of literary acknowledgement he has received from the genre, he has kept to it and his fans are glad he did.
One thing I love about Saunders’ work is that he manages to illustrate just to what extent the English language is rich and diverse (and believe compared to languages like French, it’s not ; not trying to be condescending here, just pointing out that we have more words than you do and that’s a fact). His sentences are always balanced and lovely and he is among the few writer who draw you in, not thanks to plot or characterization, but because you can’t get enough of his wonderful prose.
Saunders does not write long, complicated plots which unwrap in a minimum of a thousand pages. No. With Saunders, you’re back to basics, back to the magic that makes a good book and that, ladies and gents, is good writing.
If you’ve ever read anything by this author, you know that he is a short story writer and you can tell that even his novels are in fact, short stories put together and woven to give the appearance of continuity when in fact, you could read them separately and enjoy them nevertheless.
For all those reasons, Saunders is not good commercial material, because he doesn’t write 2 000 pages trilogies set in Celtic inspired environments, because you occasionally need to open a dictionary, because he’s most brilliant in short form, because of all this, Saunders has to rely on self-publishing to keep his work out there. And that’s a shame.
For those of you not familiar with this author, know that he is most famous for his Imaro series which originally came out in the seventies. After a long interruption, the series was picked up by Nightshade Books about two years ago. They intended to bring this author and his works out of the shadow, but things did not go as planned. Nightshade was only able to publish the first two Imaro books before sales numbers forced them to once again give up on this underrated author.
I was afraid Saunders would give up after that but no, the author bounced back and (self)published a new series, Dossouye.
Now, my only problem with Imaro was that it was a very masculine environment in which women had little or no role to play besides sitting and being pretty. So when I heard that Saunders’ new hero was in fact a heroine, a female warrior the likes of the Amazons, I got very excited and I wasn’t disappointed. (less)