Review: White Tears, Hari Kunzru

Here’s the summary of White Tears from Goodreads, because I need you to understand my reading experience:

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.

White Tears

Doesn’t that summary sound like a light social satire in which a Music World Uproar causes privileged white boys to realize the folly of appropriation? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (that’s a reference to something terrifying that happens in the book). Don’t be fooled: “White Tears is a ghost story” should have gone up front, because holy shit, White Tears is a ghost story. White Tears is primarily a ghost story. When Seth and Carter send their faked song by imaginary Charlie Shaw out into the world, they set into motion a goddamn terrifying ghost story.

real footage of me on a short break from White Tears

I am trying to strike a balance in this post between telling you enough information to get you to read this book and spoiling the reading experience. This book grabbed me by the throat and shook me like a Polaroid picture. It’s Southern gothic written by a Kashmiri British guy. It catches the reader up in Seth’s need to know how his life came to be in this shambles, even when you can clearly see that he’s walking straight into his own doom. It makes privileged white kids pay the bitter, vicious price of the country’s racial sins. It’s the rare ghost story that makes you root for the ghost.

If I had one gripe, it’s that the resolution of White Tears is perhaps a smidge too tidy. What you eventually find out about the ghost and its motivations, about Carter’s family and their history in the American racial landscape, is certainly effective to the story Kunzru’s telling. But in a way, I would have found it more satisfying if the ghost’s revenge on these people had been random and unfair, if Seth and Carter just happened to be the people on whom the ghost’s eye fell. If you’ve read the book, let me know if you agree! I will take arguments to the contrary.

Anyway, whatever, White Tears is still scary af. There’s this one scene, oh my God there is this one scene where Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie are down south talking to a black guy in a pick-up truck, and it will haunt my nightmares always. You’ll know the one when you get to it. Also, the B side of the Charlie Shaw record.

Please read this booooooooooook and then come back and talk to me about it! And also, if you have read other books by Hari Kunzru, what did you think of them? I would like to know more!

Not a Dumb American: Angola Edition

Note: I received a copy of Njinga of Angola from the publisher for review consideration. This has not affected the contents of my post.

My brilliant friend Alice told me that this book existed (thanks, Alice!), and I hied me off to the publisher at once to ask for a review copy. I love African history and I love BALLER QUEENS, so you can see that this was a match made in heaven. Njinga was a seventeenth-century queen in what is now northwestern Angola. At a time when European rule was sweeping across Africa, Njinga successfully ruled the kingdoms of Matamba and Ndongo at a time when Portuguese rule was the norm; her political savvy and military success forced the European colonizers to treat with her even as they ran roughshod over numerous other sovereign nations in Africa. Njinga was also a slave trafficker (slave export was one way that she preserved her economic power) and practitioner of human sacrifice.

Njinga of Angola

Njinga of Angola is the first ever (I know!) English-language biography of this queen. Linda Heywood has done a tremendous amount of archival research to track down Njinga’s story. The sister of Ngola a Hari, a king who was very medium at getting what he wanted from the Portuguese, Njinga did not begin her political career until she was thirty-five years old. She was deputized by her brother (who had previously killed her infant son and sterilized her and her sisters to prevent them from becoming a threat to his rule) to negotiate with the Portuguese on his behalf.

but for real, Njinga was on a legit diplomatic mission to the Portuguese

After this mission, she gained sufficient popularity and power to feel comfortable murdering her jerk brother and taking over his throne. Then she married the Imbangala gentleman who had custody of her brother’s little son. At the wedding, she killed the kid and threw him in the river.

This story brings up (for me) one of the problems with Njinga’s story: Like a lot of African history, we’re depending heavily on European records to know what’s going on. Later on in life, Njinga was a prolific letter-writer, corresponding with major European religious and political figures in an effort to achieve her diplomatic goals. But even then, historians have very little access to her innermost thoughts, depending instead on the image of herself she was presenting to powerful Europeans as a powerful African. So we are able to know about her only what European writers saw, or what she chose to present to European priests, kings, and governors. Anything they didn’t see, we can’t know. It makes for a slightly bloodless story, as the reader is necessarily at one or two removes from Njinga’s true motives and feelings.

With that being said, though, Heywood makes it clear how savvy Njinga became to what the Europeans expected and wanted from her, and what she could expect and request from them. Recognizing that the Europeans were using the pretext of moral virtue to steal land, and aware that her own military successes gave her a degree of bargaining power, she used the idea of cannibal savages as a tool to defend her own moral virtue and claim to the land: Whereas these groups of Africans are bad and wicked, with barbaric customs and irredeemable morals, my group of Africans is righteous and Christian.

The most tragic thing in this book (to me, a sisters-having person) is that Njinga’s two sisters were taken captive by the Portuguese, and they were spies for her. I was very struck by how brave they were and what impressive assets to Njinga as a ruler — one sister spied for her for years until she was caught and executed. The other converted (allegedly) to Christianity under Portuguese rule, and her (apparent) piety was a crucial bargaining chip when Njinga was requesting protection as a fellow Christian. Negotiations over the second sister’s release went on for years, and by the time the women were reunited, the sister — now called by her Christian name of Barbara, formerly known as Kambu — had been a prisoner of the Portuguese for over a decade.

Njinga threw herself on the ground in front of Barbara, rubbing herself in the soil as was customary when a person received a favor or when dependents paid homage to masters or superiors. Given permission to approach Barbara, Njinga kissed her sister’s hand and knelt once more, letting her face drop to the ground once again. After this ceremonial greeting, the two sisters embraced and for a long time held on to each other tenderly, not speaking a word, but kissing each other repeatedly.

Next I would like to read an article / series of articles / whole damn book about contesting memories of Njinga. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Contemporary Portuguese accounts often lean heavily on Njinga’s conversion to Christianity and how sincere it may have been, or on the notion that she was a cannibal savage who sacrificed humans in barbarian rituals (this carrying of course a very, very different moral valence than the actions of Portuguese slave traders in the same historical period). In post-independence Angola, Njinga has been revered as a symbol of resistance to colonizing powers.

Njinga of Angola is a tremendous feat of research and storytelling, a vital piece of the massively complex story of African resistance and diplomacy in the face of European colonialism. Much recommended.

Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us, Emily Skrutskie

Huge thanks to Sarah of The Illustrated Page for putting me onto Emily Skrutskie’s indie-published The Abyss Surrounds Us. It’s about a teenage marine biologist, Cassandra, who trains genetically engineered sea monsters (called Reckoners) to accompany merchant ships around the dangerous seas of Future America and fight off pirate attacks. But during her first solo mission, her Reckoner fails, the ship is destroyed, and Cas herself is taken prisoner. The pirate captain, Santa Elena, orders Cas to train the Reckoner pup she’s somehow acquired. If she fails, she dies. If she succeeds, she risks upsetting the delicate balance (of money and power and biology, even!) of the world that’s been her whole life. Also, the pirate girl who’s been assigned to watch Cas aboard ship is pretty hot.

The Abyss Surrounds Us

Look, “sea monster trainer gets kidnapped by sexy pirate girl” is a sufficiently great elevator pitch that there was no chance of my not reading this book. I checked it out on a library day when the only books I wanted were straightforward fun, and this one absolutely delivered: Cas’s adventures on the high seas, her burgeoning relationship with Swift the pirate girl, her tentative navigation1 of the treacherous world of Santa Elena’s pirate ship, and her ongoing moral quandaries were everything you could ask for in a fantasy YA novel.

The nitty-gritty details of training a Reckoner — Bao is a turtle-type sea monster, although there are also octopus and whale types — were a particular delight. Cas has been helping to train Reckoners from her earliest childhood, but Bao is the first one she’s had to train all on her own. The book never forgets that Bao is a monster, albeit one who’s been genetically programmed to accept the training Cas is giving him. But even when he’s doing what Cas wants, there’s a perpetual risk that he’ll turn on her. The parallels to Cas’s own situation aboard the pirate ship, obeying Santa Elena’s orders while dreaming of escape, are noticeable.

The Abyss Surrounds Us is a first novel, and certainly there are things about it that could have been improved: I’d have liked to know more about Cas’s world, and in particular I’d have liked to see a stronger motivation for Cas to start wondering whether the Reckoner/merchant world she comes from is all that she had believed. I also felt that Cas’s background was a little underexplored; this post on Reading (As)(I)an (Am)erica gets into the representation of POC characters in the book (the author’s white).

Despite these minor quibbles, it’s one of my most fun reading experiences this year. Fans of stories of the sea will love this one, and I’m already eager to read the second book in the duology (out this month).

  1. Metaphorical navigation — she’s not actually navigating the actual ship.

Review: X-23, Marjorie Liu

Using a Marvel Unlimited gift code from my beautiful pal Memory (thanks Memory!), I finally read Marjorie Liu’s run on X-23, just in time to know a bit about the character before watching OLD MAN LOGAN MOVIE. The run went through several artists, my favorite of which obviously was Sana Takeda, with Phil Noto as a close second.

X-23

If you’re not au courant with what was happening to the X-Men around the time this series came out (early 2010s), there’s kind of a lot to catch up on, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend this series as a starting place for the X-Men if you don’t have a baseline familiarity with the characters. However, Liu does a good job getting you up to speed, and I generally felt like I had a good grip on things: Laura, X-23, ended up on an X-men fighting force that made her feel like she’s good for nothing but murder. Wolverine got ?possessed? by a ?demon?, an issue that’s settled in the Wolverine comics but touches on these comics too (given that Laura’s a clone of Wolverine’s).

The baseline story here is that Laura’s trying to learn how to control the darkness within, and for Reasons(tm), in order to do that she has to go on a road trip with Gambit. Why Gambit? Who cares! Why road trip? Who cares! The comic gets into these reasons but I love Gambit and I love road trips so it would literally be impossible for me to care less about what pretense Marjorie Liu uses to make those two things happen. Gambit’s a character I have, ah, complicated feelings about,1 and it was nice to see him in a Wolveriney big-brother role with Laura.

My favorite of the mini-arcs, however, occurs in the third trade paperback (if you’re reading this in trade paperbacks): Laura agrees to babysit for Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s kids, and world-hopping dragon-fighting hijinx ensure because Valeria and Franklin are trouble trouble trouble.

Sana Takeda’s art is detailed and lush and adorable as it continues to be in Monstress. I’m thrilled these two creators connected while making X-23 and continued their collaboration, because I love the work that they create together.

The final issue of Marjorie Liu’s run on X-23 is….not great. If you are reading this series and you want to end on a positive note, close the book after the penultimate issue, the one that ends with Laura riding away on a motorcycle. It is for your own good and you will thank me. The final issue is this weird wordless, like, vision-quest story where Laura stays the night with the family of an American Indian family, and overnight she has this whole encounter with wolves and a shamaness in the forest. To have your only Indian characters throughout the whole series be wordless is not great, and to take a tourist spin through another culture’s religious traditions is not great, and I really wished this issue didn’t exist. As a sea of critics have said over and over again, Marvel would reeeeeally help themselves when writing about characters from marginalized groups to hire writers from those groups.

I am feeling very positively about minor X-Men characters right now, y’all! Please get at me in the comments and let me know what series runs with lesser X-Men I should be reading.

  1. On one hand: He’s a rogue! He’s our only pop culture Cajun! On the other hand: Yawn to the rogue womanizer trope, and could someone ever be bothered to actually research Cajun culture before they whatever I’m not even going to finish this question because the answer is so obvious.

Review: The Language of Secrets, Ausma Zehanat Khan

Esa Khattak and his partner Rachel Getty are back in a sophomore mystery called The Language of Secrets, in which Esa is called in to investigate the death of an undercover agent killed while investigating an extremist terror cell. The cell is still planning an attack in Toronto, so it’s vital that Esa should investigate the murder without letting the cell discover that the dead man, Mohsin (a university friend of Esa’s), was an agent of law enforcement.

The Language of Secrets

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, so I feel unqualified to speak to the success of the book as a mystery. As a piece of fiction, though, I found it immensely satisfying. Esa gets brought onto the case almost as political cover: They need a Muslim officer who can appear to be investigating the case without investigating it so much that the sting on the terrorist cell gets derailed. The lead detective handling the terror case believes that Esa was promoted unfairly for “diversity” purposes, and he is condescending and rude to Esa at every turn while undermining the legitimacy of the murder investigation that Esa and Rachel are working on. That his distrust of Esa turns out to have real, terrifying consequences for the case is predictable but also the kind of thing I don’t see played out that often in — particularly — mystery books.

At first I was surprised that Khan chose to go with a “Muslim terrorist cell” plot for her second book. The previous book dealt with the genocide in Bosnia, with Esa’s religious background giving a context and particularity to his investigations. This story felt, at first, altogether more like one that I’d encounter on a television show. But one of Khan’s strengths as a writer is that she uses the structure of a familiar story while fleshing out a range of experiences and faiths for her Muslim characters. Members of the cell have different motives and levels of involvement, while people like Esa and his sister, or Mohsin’s widow, or Mohsin’s father, practice a peaceful version of Islam that is, of course, far more common and normal than the violent extremism we see in the cell leader, Hassan.

An element of the book that I found very unsatisfying was the character of Esa’s sister Rukshana. There will be spoilers in this paragraph only. We find out early on — through Ciprian Coale — that Rukshana is engaged to the apparent leader of this extremist terror cell. When Esa goes to speak with her about it, Rukshana is hotly defensive of her relationship, which has arisen within the last year, and she refuses to listen to Esa’s words of caution. Okay, fine, people in love never listen to anyone who naysays them. The book never tells us what Ruksh sees in Hassan, or where she met him, or what the course of their relationship has been; and at the end of the book, after Hassan nearly kills Ruksh, we see her anger with Esa for not telling her that Hassan was part of a terror cell. But we don’t see any moment where she’s like “oh my God the person I said I loved was a violent terrorist.” It felt weird and off — she felt like a plot device, not a character in her own right.

Recommended!

Review: Borderline, Mishell Baker

What’s that you say? Somebody wrote a book about creepy fairies and mental health treatments? YES THANK YOU, I DON’T MIND IF I DO.

Borderline has been garnering all the accolades this past year in SFF circles, most recently a well-deserved Nebula nomination. It’s about a filmmaker called Millie who has borderline personality disorder (BPD hereafter) and is a double amputee following a suicide attempt the year before. A mysterious woman named Caryl shows up at her mental hospital and offers her a job with the equally mysterious Arcadia Project. Work with us for a year, says Caryl, and at the end of it we’ll get you a job in Hollywood. Figuring it’s the only way she’ll get back into the movie biz, Millie agrees and is instantly put on a missing persons case — or to be more specific, a missing fairy case, because it turns out the Arcadia Project manages human/fairy relations. Delicately.

Borderline

I was nervous to read this book (despite the fab cover and raves from all sides), partly because depictions of mental health in SFF can be hit or miss for me (with a lotttttt of miss), and partly because borderline people are bad at boundaries and I am made up of ~95% boundaries so I was worried that if the book accurately portrayed BPD, it would put my back up and I would have a hard time enjoying it.

Borderline pooh-poohed all my concerns: It portrayed BPD in a way that was absolutely familiar to me from borderline people I have known, and gave me a ton of insight about what it’s like from the inside if you are self-aware and trying to deal with it, and got into the nitty-gritty details of cognitive behavioral therapy work1 that BPD-havers can do to lessen the impact of their symptoms, and showed how BPD both helps and hurts Millie in her work with the Arcadia Project. What a great fucking book.

The world of the fey that Mishell Baker explores here is wonderfully weird and specific. If the explanations Millie gets from her colleagues at the Arcadia Project occasionally feel like visits from the Exposition Fairy, those moments are quick and well worth the reader’s time (especially given that this is the first book in a planned series). The mystery Millie is assigned to investigate throws out an exactly correct number of clues, red herrings, and conspiracy, leaving behind a satisfying solution and some loose ends for the second book to explore. The last time I enjoyed urban fantasy this much was War for the Oaks.2

My one single gripe is that the character of Gloria bummed me out. She’s a blonde Southern bitch whose polite words have barbs behind them:

“Don’t mind Teo,” said a cloying, high-pitched Southern voice. “He’s a Grouchy Gus.” . . . . She giggled, in that cute way Southern women do instead of punching you in the teeth.

Ha ha yeah totally, we are cloying assholes down here.

Whereas with other characters at the Arcadia Project, Baker gives you a sense of what lies behind their behavior toward Millie, Gloria pretty much seems like she’s being a bitch to be a bitch. (She Does Good at points in the story, but in general she’s pointlessly shitty, passive-aggressive, and insincere to Millie.) The fake-nice blonde Southern lady is a stereotype I’d like a break from, given how closely the fakeness and the blondeness seem to be linked. While individual writers who write this type of antagonist for their heroes to clash with probably don’t intend it this way (it’s clear Baker doesn’t), the uncritical reproduction of this stereotype nevertheless reinforces a dichotomy of honest vs. deceptive gender performance that I do not love.

On the other hand, I am a blonde polite Southern woman who has spent a lot of time around people that think that list of adjectives tells them everything they need to know about me, so maybe I’m just annoyed on behalf of my people. You decide!

Overall though, I absolutely loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, talked about it to everyone, will read the sequel in a hot second when it comes out. I already know it’s going to be one of my favorites of 2017. Thanks so much for Sarah over at The Illustrated Page for putting me on to it!

  1. I love cognitive behavioral therapy so much, and it has helped so many people, and I almost never see it depicted in fiction, so that was awesome.
  2. Aha, says the perceptive reader, you must not read very much urban fantasy. Correct, I do not; it does not often tempt me.

Review: Jem and the Holograms, Kelly Thompson & Sophie Campbell

Well, Memory and Ana were correct: Jem and the Holograms is a joyous delight. I dragged my feet on reading it because I was not familiar with the original property, which should be no surprise to anyone because I know 0 things about pop culture prior to 2005 or so. But it turns out you don’t need to be familiar with the television show to appreciate the glorious weirdness of this comic.

Jem and the Holograms

The premise: Jerrica, Kimber, Shana, and Aja want to submit a video application to the “Misfits vs” competition, where a bunch of unknown bands get to compete against The Misfits in live performance. But Jerrica (their lead singer) has such terrible stage fright that she can’t get through a single song without choking. So instead they USE A HOLOGRAM OF HER and pretend the hologram lady (Jem) is their real lead singer. Hijinks ensue.

I dunno, if you enjoyed the first act of The Parent Trap or want to read about ladies tearing it up in the music scene with excellent eye makeup, I feel I can recommend Jem and the Holograms to you in good conscience. This volume mainly focuses on Jerrica and Kimber, but it’s clear that the background characters have their own desires and stories to tell, which I hope we’ll see more of as the comic progresses. It’s A+ to see Kimber’s budding romance with a lady and Jerrica’s budding romance with a dude treated with the exact same tone and respect; I am rooting for love all around!

Another wonderful thing about this comic is that when artist Sophie Campbell came out as trans over the course of the comic’s run, publisher IDW reprinted every issue to get rid of her deadname. That is absolutely putting your money where your mouth is, and I think it’s great that the publisher supported Campbell. Also great: Trans ladies being lead artists on comics! Woooooooo!

(Note: Sophie Campbell finished her run on Jem and the Holograms after the 17th issue and moved on to other projects. But that still gives me two (ish?) more trade paperbacks of this marvelous comic to look forward to with her art.)

So if the Trump administration is backing up on you and you need some pure, bright-colored joy in your life, check out Jem and the Holograms.

Review: Batgirl, Gail Simone

My DC project is officially launched! Not only has 19% of my reading been comics so far this year (though it’s early days), but I have also now completed half of my New Year’s Resolution re: DC comics, which was to read two substantial runs on two different DC comics. First up: Gail Simone’s Batgirl.

Batgirl

Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl follows Barbara Gordon as she’s getting back into the game of fighting crime on the streets after several years away. My main takeaway here is that Batgirl cannot cut a break. Every time she arrests one criminal who’s determined to murder her, another one pops up, like the world’s most sinister game of Whack-a-Mole. (Is that the game I’m thinking of? Where you whap the things on the head and they go back down into their hole but then another one pops up somewhere else on the board?)

A recent miracle cure (I know) has given Barbara back the use of her legs after a years-ago attack by the Joker. Though Barbara’s physically able to return to the work of catching criminals on the mean streets of Gotham, she still struggles mentally. Her reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and more significantly, the trauma of her attack by the Joker continues to affect her day to day. Simone’s excellent on Barbara’s ongoing feelings about what happened to her — she’s angry about it, and angry with herself for what she perceives as letting it happen, and memories of the assault flash into her mind at inconvenient times, leaving her frozen and stunned when she most needs to be up and fighting. But Barbara also refuses to be defined by her worst day, and she continues to get back up and keep on fighting evil.

Holy hell, Gotham is the worst. Is this typical of street-level comic books? I have most often read the mid-level ones, where the Avengers or the X-Men are saving the world from things, and I miss out the street-level fighters like Luke Cage and the Punisher. But goddamn, in Gotham it seems like nobody ever has a good day. Not the superheroes, not the villains, and for sure not the civilians. Everyone gets nonstop murdered. I prescribe a rousing course of trauma-focused CBT for the entire citizenry of Gotham.

Look, this is my first significant read of a DC comic, and I don’t want to overgeneralize here. But you know that perception that like, Marvel has the jokes, DC has the grimdark? Reading Batgirl did not shift that perception for me. It isn’t just that Barbara constantly has people gunning for her, although she does, and it isn’t just that Gotham is an unbearable violent shithole with no redeeming qualities, although it is. Reading this comic, I got so tired of Barbara facing mastermind villains who were specifically, personally targeting her trauma history, manipulating her into super-triggering situations, and then taunting her at great length about her inability to save her loved ones. Are there no villains in the DC universe who just want a whole bunch of money or to experiment on innocent civilians without involving superheroes? Do all the DC villains devote upwards of half their time to specifically ruining the lives of the heroes of Gotham?

These are not rhetorical questions. Please answer them in the comments. If the answer is yes I may need to rethink this DC reading project and also not buy that one shirt I wanted to buy.

I still really want this shirt.

Not a Dumb American: Equatorial Guinea

Let me tell you some of the problems I have encountered in my Africa reading project. Number one is that not a huge amount of books have been published in English about many African countries, particularly smaller ones, particularly non-Anglophone smaller ones. Number two is that my library oftentimes has older African history books but does not have newer African history books, which I assume can be attributed to a shift in purchasing priorities. So the book I read for Equatorial Guinea (a teensy wee Hispanophone country) was Ibrahim Sundiata’s 1990 monograph Equatorial Guinea: Colonialism, State Terror, and the Search for Stability.

Guess what happened in Equatorial Guinea in 1996. They found oil. Black gold. Texas tea. Turns out having huge oil reserves can drastically change the course of a nation’s history.

Let me back up and tell you some of the stuff I learned from the actual book, however. Equatorial Guinea is a teeny wee country on Africa’s west coast and one of three African countries with “Guinea” in the name. (The other two are Guinea-Bissau and just plain old regular Guinea.) There’s a mainland bit of the country, which is called Rio Muni, and then there’s an island bit up by Cameroon called Bioko, and another island bit down below Sao Tome and Principe that’s called Annobon. It’s confusing. Here’s a picture.

If you are wondering why the country is so weirdly laid out, I can report that it’s basically down to the Spanish being rather disorganized colonizers and the Portuguese knowing what they were about. Sao Tome and Principe were uninhabited at the point of Portuguese colonization and had a lot of cultivable land, whereas Bioko was fiercely defended by its inhabitants, the Bubi, and neither it nor the other Equatorian islands had much available land for large-scale farming. Annobon and Corisco (Corisco is the yellow dot just slightly southwest of Rio Muni) were usefulish as entrepots, but not so longterm useful that Portugal wasn’t willing to sell them to Spain in 1777. Spain kind of didn’t realize this before buying them.

real footage of Spain after making this purchase

I was going to say “Get your act together, Spain!” But then I was like, wait, do I want the colonizing powers to get their act together? And then I was like, wait, but is it better if the colonizing powers don’t have their act together, or does that just fuck up the ultimate outcomes for the colonized countries? And then I remembered that it doesn’t matter because colonized nations are nearly always fucked. And also I can’t do a very good comparison yet because I don’t know anything about outcomes in Sao Tome and Principe.1

For a large chunk of the twentieth century, the Equatorial Guinean chief export was cacao, which was farmed on a small scale by the indigenous Bubi people, and on a large scale by a huge range of immigrants and migrant workers from nearby African countries (because there weren’t enough local workers to do it on a large scale). Cacao plantations had really horrible working conditions, and various other countries kept annoying Spain deeply by summoning their migrant workers back home or by investigating labor conditions and penalizing anyone who acquired migrant workers illegally; and then Spain would be on the hook for compensation payments.

In 1968, the country became independent, probably because Spain couldn’t be bothered providing financially for the country they’d spent the last two hundred years not being bothered about governing, and a guy called Macias Nguema came to power. He centralized power in his own office, outlawed competing political parties, and decreed himself President for Life.

I HAVE BEEN SAVING THIS GIF FOR JUST SUCH AN OCCASION

The great majority of educated Equatoguineans fled the country, with some estimates suggesting that the population declined by more than half during Nguema’s presidency/dictatorship. He targeted people who wore glasses and the minority Bubi population (remember them from a paragraph ago? They refused to work for shitty cacao plantations and did their own damn farming instead?), as he perceived those groups as being too intellectual. Also (I did not learn this from the book, I learned it from further online researches) he apparently committed mass murder in a football stadium while blasting a jaunty song I used to like but now find extremely creepy. It was his favorite song, but that doesn’t really explain much.

I am really sorry that these posts aren’t cheerier. Just, it turns out that when colonizing powers draw arbitrary national lines and skimp on education budgets for many decades, things become quite difficult for the resulting country. Also, it is difficult to shake off dictators once you have them, particularly if the dictators in question murder and exile the entire educated class of the country.

THIS POINTED STARE I AM DOING IS AIMED AT YOU, AMERICA. DO NOT PERMIT DICTATORING. DO NOT PERMIT ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM. IT WILL NOT BENEFIT ANYBODY IN THE END.

Anyway. Eventually there was a coup, and if you have been following along at home, you probably know it was even odds that the result of the coup against the dictator would just be a brand new dictator. The former dictator’s nephew, Teodoro Obiang, now the longest-running ruler in all of Africa. When Sundiata was writing his book, it seemed like Obiang would be less awful, and I guess once he dies and things change, we will have a better picture of how much and if he is indeed less awful. But corruption is still hella rampant, with the bulk of the country’s oil money going into Obiang’s pockets rather than improvements to the country, and dissent is really not tolerated at all.

Oh, I forgot to say also that when Macias (football stadium guy) was sentenced to execution, the cult of personality around him and the belief in his magic was so strong that no Equatoguineans would carry out the execution. Obiang’s Moroccan guard had to do it.

There you go. Now you know more about Equatorial Guinea than you knew before. It is all pretty sad but better to have more information than less information, right?

Next up: Old-time Zimbabwe! (By which I mean I am reading another oldish book, because even though it’s old it’s still supposed to be quite authoritative.) If you want to follow my progress on this mighty African reading project, here’s the main page. I am determined to read four histories of African countries this year, and hopefully five.

  1. I know that things went horribly awry in Angola and Mozambique, which are the other two Portuguese colonies I can think of right now, but my vague recollection is that those were Cold War proxy conflicts and not bumpy road to independence situations.

Review: Iron Cast, Destiny Soria

Oh friends, I needed this book so much. Iron Cast is a YA alternate history novel about two best friends who can do illegal magic and have fallen in with a gangster club on the eve of Prohibition. I liked it a ton, and it cheered me right the hell up in a week where I was feeling hopeless.

Iron Cast

Ada and Corinne are hemopaths: Corinne can create completely believable illusions by reciting poetry, while Ada can induce strong emotions with her music. They work for the gangster Johnny Dervish of the Cast Iron club, where they perform for crowds of regs (non-hemopaths) at night, carry off cons during the day, and receive shelter from the special forces that hunt hemopaths and carry them off to Havisham Asylum. Until Johnny Dervish is murdered.

If you liked The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, I feel good about recommending Iron Cast to you. At its heart is the friendship between these two girls, the quiet, practical Ada and the fierce, stubborn Corinne. Possibly my favorite thing about Iron Cast is the absolute confidence Corinne and Ada each felt in their friendship. Though they both have love interests, the stories begins and ends with their friendship. They are also both powerful hemopaths — we don’t realize exactly how powerful right at first — and it’s so much fun to see how their trust plays into the ways that they work together to Get Shit Done.

As far as I can tell, Iron Cast is a one-and-done, but I’d love to see more in this world. Soria has a knack for character, such that I’d gladly read a book about virtually any of the supporting characters. Even when we see very little of them, the characters clearly had lives and interests of their own, from the queer shapeshifter who runs a low-budget theater to Corinne’s wealthy brother making a politically advantageous marriage. It was to the point that when I realized how fully Iron Cast was wrapping up its plot, I was kind of disappointed. I wanted sequels, dammit! But I guess companion novels would be okay too.

All in all, an extremely fun YA fantasy novel with lots of adventures and lies and female friendships for you to sink your metaphorical teeth into.