Monday, December 14, 2009

Review of Alaya Dawn Johnson's Racing the Dark (Agate Bolden, 2007)

Alaya Dawn Johnson's debut novel, Racing the Dark, was released in 2007 by Agate Bolden. The epic fantasy is the first in the Spirit Binders series.

Racing the Dark begins when thirteen-year-old Lana is initiated as a diver who seeks and finds Mandagah jewels, a profession that provides her island's main commercial export and is also religiously significant. The jewels Lana finds during her initiation mark her as chosen by the spirits, but Lana hides this fact so she can attempt to have a normal life.

The island archipelago where Lana lives is in turmoil -- her home island is suffering from environmental changes that seem to be caused by the great spirits (including water, fire, wind and death) which are struggling against their bindings. When the Mandagah fish become endangered, Lana's family flees their home, looking for work on the inner islands. Lana becomes ill from hard labor and poor diet, forcing her mother to promise her as an apprentice to a witch in order to get money to pay for a cure.

The novel follows Lana through the major periods of her life, as she learns magic from the witch, takes on the spirit of death, meets the spirit of wind, and falls in love with the spirit of water. We leave her abruptly in the middle of the climax, paving the way for the sequel.

As I contemplated what to say about this novel, I came across a review by Niall Harrison of Alaya Dawn Johnson's short story, "Far & Deep," which appeared this year in Interzone.

"This is how you trail a novel," writes Harrison. "'Far & Deep' shares a setting with, but is not extracted from (or is sufficiently well-adapted to stand apart from), Johnson’s Spirit Binders novels."

He goes on to say:

“Far & Deep” is not as firmly controlled as I wanted it to be; the stabs of emotion that punctuate the predominantly cool narrative tilt, a little too often, a little too close to melodrama for my taste. I don’t think the revelation of the world and the mystery are quite geared correctly; we don’t always learn about the possibility of a thing and the significance of a thing in the smoothest progression...

All this is to carp, however. They are little criticisms. The busyness of the story — the many details of setting, the deft character portraits, a sense of events with forward momentum — the basic shape of it all — carries you over such details, on a first reading, and leaves you looking forward to Johnson’s next tale.

While I don't feel that the momentum of Racing the Dark carries the reader over its flaws on first reading, the rest of Harrison's review is spot on for my impressions of the novel. Racing the Dark is a flawed text, but a rich one, full of minor faults and major successes.

The faults first: Racing the Dark is structurally awkward, lurching between time frames for no apparent reason. There seems to be little logic underlying which scenes are shown, which are narrated, and which are skipped -- for instance, the novel squanders pages of detail on the miserable labors of Lana and her mother after they leave their home -- which was interesting enough, but could probably have been abbreviated somewhat without sacrificing important information. Then the first years of Lana's apprenticeship to the witch -- which seem to be very relevant to the plot both in terms of Lana's character evolution and in terms of how later machinations are laid down -- are skipped entirely. If it was a matter of controlling the novel's length, I'd rather have seen the latter than the former. If it wasn't, I'd have preferred to see both.

Exposition was a problem in my reading of the novel as it was a problem in Harrison's reading of the short story. Sometimes the world-building details are included after they become important instead of before. Major plot points will turn on whether one choice is made or another, but the reader isn't given tools to decipher what either choice means until after the scene is over. The main character undergoes transformations and epiphanies that the reader doesn't even know are possible, let alone significant, until after the fact.

The writing lacks a degree of confidence in general. The narrative seems (as Harrison suggests of the short story) to be slightly out of control. Awkward exposition, a not-quite-perfectness to the POV, and structural oddities kept me slightly off-balance during my reading.

As someone familiar with Johnson's short work outside this setting, I found this strange. Her short stories that take place in our world are very tightly controlled, with particular strength and integrity in the narrative voice. I would trust the narrator of "Shard of Glass" to take me anywhere, which is one reason why I think the ending is workable, despite being relatively weak compared to the rest of the story. It's an unresolved ending, taking me into somewhere entirely undefined, but because of the confident handling in the rest of the text, I am willing to follow the narrator out of the story.

These weren't minor complaints for me as they seem to have been for Harrison -- in particular, the scene skipping kept me off-balance. But these things didn't bug me because they made me dislike the novel. Actually, they bugged me because I enjoyed the novel quite a bit.

This novel is strong in all the ways Harrison indicates the story is strong -- including vivid, if sometimes melodramatic emotions, which are skillfully evoked in the reader as well as the character. Johnson is a writer who is interested in issues of race and sex and she succeeds in presenting some interesting ideas here, particularly the vaguely Polynesian setting. The story didn't spend much time exploring the way that the divers from Lana's home island functioned as a woman-only prestige class, but it made for good background. It also created an interesting effect when Lana and her mother went to other islands where they were easily recognizable as having been divers, and treated with mingled respect and pity because there were no similar roles anywhere else for them to step into.

The real strength here is Johnson's images. The setting details are richly realized and beautiful. At times, I could almost forget the plot and characters and flow from image to image, each one stunning, strange and colorful. I found myself desperately wanting this to be a Miyazaki film, rendered in his colorful but odd style (particularly the character of the Death whose description reminded me of No Face from Spirited Away).

In a way, the intense, sometimes disjunctive vividness of the images was enhanced by some of the expositional and structural oddities. I find myself thinking of the novel in retrospect as if it were a dream -- one filled with rich detail, saturated emotions, and weird leaps in time and place. Just as in a dream, I knew what I was seeing and what I felt about it. But just as in a dream, the connections between images didn't always make sense. Sometimes things that I should have seen dropped away into nothing, and sometimes things didn't make sense as they happened, but only after I rationalized them.

I find this is also sometimes the way I feel when I read texts that genuinely come from a culture-not-mine. Unlike fantasy writers, authors writing for their own cultural context don't make sure to drop in clever world-building beforehand so that the American* reader can experience a seamless transition when a revelation, plot turn, or epiphany is revealed. Other cultures may also have different story-telling conventions, with different ideas of what's important, leading their writers to make different choices than a Western writer might, dwelling on some details and leaving out others.

I can almost, almost, interpret this text as if it's supposed to be a piece of fiction from the culture it's describing. But I can't quite suspend disbelief and take this interpretation. If I was supposed to be from the culture described in the novel, a great deal of the exposition which does exist would be cut. It would share fewer American cultural touchstones. The characters would act in ways which have less resemblance to American concepts of psychology. I'm afraid that this text follows too many fantasy conventions to look like an artifact from somewhere else.

Interestingly, when I think about books that do genuinely come from other cultures, the text that I most want to compare Racing the Dark to is Efuru by Flora Nwapa, the tale of another spirit-chosen woman whose life is ruined because of supernatural "favor." I wonder whether Johnson had read this text and whether she is deliberately playing off of its themes.

Above all, perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that it's a fun read, full of energy and vivacity. I finished this book the same night I picked it up and then my husband did the same a few days later. Lana is not complexly characterized, but she's easy to identify with. The prose makes it simple to imagine oneself in her position, toying with magic, falling in love with spirits, flying across the sky, playing a tune for death on a flute made of bone. Lana's adventures are always interesting, and so Racing the Dark is always enjoyable.

It's somewhat irksome that Racing the Dark ends in the middle of a climactic scene -- actually, I recently overheard another writer complain to Johnson, "I can't believe you left me there! I want to know what happened next!" -- but luckily for that other author and for me, the sequel should be along soon. I'm looking forward to reading it.

The first book is available at Amazon.


*I left out this word when I published the review, so I just edited it in.

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