Review: Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty

What a genuinely great, fun book. Six Wakes was one of my most anticipated books for spring, and with good reason! In this future, humans have perfected cloning: with regular backups (called mindmaps) and a fresh computer, a clone can die as many times as it likes and wake up again in a brand new body. If you haven’t backed up your mind lately with a new mindmap, and you die, your clone will be missing some time.

Space janitor and chef Maria Elena wakes up in a new clone body to find that her last body is dead. The five other crew members aboard the generation ship Dormire are in the same situation. Their older bodies have clearly been in space for more than two decades, but they now can’t remember anything later than boarding the ship. Unable to trust anyone — even themselves — they have to get the ship’s AI back online and figure out how they got to this state, or the ship (and its thousands of sleeping colonists) is doomed.

Six Wakes

Despite (because of?) the high concept of Six Wakes, I was all in the way in from the jump. A manor house murder mystery is my favorite type of murder mystery, and Six Wakes is a manor house murder mystery in space. To make things even more fun, we soon learn that each of the six crew members is a criminal, undertaking this difficult journey with the promise that their records will be wiped clean at the other end. They are to be kept under control by the AI, who has ultimate command of the ship — but the AI is, at the time of their waking, offline and malfunctioning. Interstitial flashback chapters tell each of their stories, both how they came to commit their crimes and how they came to board this ship. Secrets abound, and it’s an absolute treat to watch the many pieces of the puzzle slowly come together.

The further you get into the book, the more Lafferty reveals about the history and mechanics of cloning, details that become more and more important as we gain more clues into what happened. I don’t want to spoil too much about the book — it’s fun learning as you go along! — but suffice it to say that the world has had a difficult time of it reaching the current legal and social detente between humans and clones.

If you’re a mystery person considering dipping a toe into SF, or an SF person considering dipping a toe into mystery, or an omnivore looking for something fun and meaty (a la, let’s say, a Lexicon or a The Rook), Six Wakes is your guy.

Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley

My concerns going into The Watchmaker of Filigree Street were, one, that it would be too twee, and two, that I didn’t care much about solving a mysterious bombing at Victorian Scotland Yard by Irish freedom fighters. Happily for my peace of mind, though it starts off seeming like a rather twee mystery about a bombing at Victorian Scotland yard by Irish freedom fighters, that really isn’t what the book is at all.

Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Our hero, Thaniel Steepleton, comes home from a difficult day at the telegraph office (bomb threat, something something) to find that his flat has been broken into, the dishes carefully washed, and an elegant and expensive gold watch left on his pillow. When the watch later saves his life from an Irish terrorist bombing, he goes in search of the watchmaker, a lonely and courteous Japanese man called Keita Mori.

“But Jenny that sounds like it is about solving a bombing!” I know, I know. My primary complaint about the book is that what it is about is much more interesting (to me) and fun (for me) than a bombing mystery, but it’s set up in such a way that it’s clearly meant as a surprise for the reader. So even though I don’t care about spoilers, I thought you might. If you ask me in the comments, I’ll tell you what the thing is.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the bulk of the book is dedicated to Thaniel and the other characters figuring out what Keita Mori’s whole deal is, and then deciding how they feel about it. Thaniel is fairly sanguine; his new friend Grace, a bluestocking who must inconveniently get herself married pronto, does not care for it. I, the reader, waffled back and forth a bit and still felt unsure, at the close of the book, whether I was morally comfortable with how Mori was managing the world he lives in. Big ups to Pulley for managing a well-plotted (if slightly slow to start) book that also engages with interesting moral issues.

A minor gripe: To this fan of romance novels, Grace seemed to be filling a role in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that is, let’s say, not my favorite romance trope. Get at me in the comments and we can talk more about it!

Spies and Cons and Really Frank Conversations about Sex

It’s time for another romance novels round-up! I have read some pretty m.f. great ones in the last month, and I bring them all to you for your delectation and delight.

I frequently recommend Alyssa Cole’s Off the Grid series to romance newbies, particularly ones who are coming to romance from SFF. Her latest book, An Extraordinary Union, maintains everything I love about her earlier work, but this time with spies!

An Extraordinary Union

Elle Burns is a former slave, former staple of the abolitionist circuit, and current spy for the Union. Her eidetic memory makes her a unique asset, and she’s posing as a mute slave in Richmond as she tries to gain intelligence about the Confederacy’s plans. When she finds herself having a legit nice conversation with a visiting Confederate soldier, she starts to question herself but GUESS WHAT Y’ALL. He is not a real Confederate soldier after all, he is ANOTHER SPY.

Cole doesn’t shy away from the fear that dogs Elle’s every step when she’s living as a slave, and she doesn’t elide the horrors of slavery. At the same time, because the reader knows that Elle and Malcolm are going to win and live happily ever after, it doesn’t feel upsetting in the way that most fiction set in this time period (rightfully) does feel. If you (like me) are fed up with the master/slave Nazi/concentration camp victim romances that keep getting published somehow, An Extraordinary Union is a wonderful, and surprisingly fun, antidote.

When I first started reading Ruthie Knox, I feared that her heroines might be too manic pixie dream girly for me. But my fears have always been allayed, and her latest book, Madly, pulls off an array of emotional tricks with casual aplomb.

Madly

Allie and Winston meet by chance, at a bar, and because they both have a lot to get off their chests, they embark on a program of radical honesty with each other. “When you’re ready to mess everything up,” Allie says, “you can practice [being you] on the mailman.” So they become each other’s mailman (plus banging).

Knox sensibly populates her world with relationships other than the central one, so we get to see Allie struggling with being a sister and daughter, and Winston with being a father. They also have sex setbacks, which is vanishingly rare in romance novels: Sometimes the thing they both wanted to try doesn’t work exactly like they were imagining, and they have to put a pin in the sexytimes to talk about feelings or come up with a new plan of (sex) action. It’s refreshing and great, and Knox seamlessly puts the sex scenes in service of their burgeoning relationship. She’s one of my favorite contemporary romance novelists, and this may be her best book yet.

OMG and they talk about how non-penetrative sex is still sex. Allie says, “I want to say fuck you to the whole idea that getting penetrated is the point of the deal, like it’s not sex if there’s not something inside me. I’m inside me. I am.

Next up, I read Cathy Pegau’s Rulebreaker, the story of a woman called Liv who gets involved in a massive con that will get her fifty million credits and a new life. All she has to do is cozy up to the sexy head of a major company….but guess what. Guess what happens.

Rulebreaker

Ding ding ding! That’s right! Liv finds herself falling for Zia, the sexy, competent executive whose secrets she’s supposed to be learning. Rulebreaker is tremendous fun, with an array of shifting loyalties for Liv to sort through as she’s trying to decide where her heart lies. I have a spoilerish gripe, which I will discuss in the next paragraph. Jump down to the next book cover if you want to miss the spoiler!

Okay, are you gone?

Okay. So it turns out that Zia’s company is testing a new air filter? or something? on a bunch of prisoners who’ve volunteered to test this air filter while working in The Mines. Liv discovers that the death rates on these tests are higher than Zia has realized, and that many of the inmates are unwilling participants in the tests. And Zia’s really sorry that she didn’t put a stop to the unethical tests in the first place, before they reached this peak of unethicalness that she didn’t know about. Uh, but, I am not actually fine with love interests who are part of a corporation that’s doing tests on prisoners where one in five of them die? That’s morally disqualifying! And it dimmed my delight in this particular HEA. Like maybe Liv should find someone with equally nice boobs but who didn’t preside over a convict leasing program.

The thing that I am the trash of: Stories where one person has always been told that a quality they possess is Wrong and Bad and they are all messed up about it but then here comes their love interest like “Hey, I think that quality is very nifty; in fact it makes me want to bang you like a screen door in a hurricane.” If you also are the trash of that thing, please allow me to direct your attention to The Lawrence Browne Affair.

So Lawrence Browne is the scion of a terrible family who wants to not be terrible (yay), and he’s got an anxiety disorder (yay), and he’s all cooped up in his drafty miserable stately home trying to do Science (yay), all the while believing that he is Mad. Along comes Georgie Turner, his new secretary, who is secretly on the run from like a London gangster, and who is also the perpetual fuck-up of his family in that he has a penchant for doing things like getting in bad with London gangsters. The book not only features the thing I am the trash of (see above) but also some home renovation, which I always find immensely satisfying in fiction.1

What romance novels have y’all been reading lately?

  1. Not in real life. In real life home renovation seems hideously stressful.

Review: Among the Ruins, Ausma Zehanat Khan

As I think I have said in my reviews of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s previous books, I don’t read a lot of mysteries. When I do get hooked on a mystery series, I don’t tend to review each one, but I’m making an exception (as you can see!) for Among the Ruins, the third in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Esa Khattak / Rachel Getty series.

Among the Ruins

I was initially drawn into Khan’s work because of my general desire to support POC authors working in genre fiction. But I’ve stayed with the series because each book has done such a beautiful job of incorporating world events into the mystery: The murder victim in The Unquiet Dead appears to have ties with the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995; in The Language of Secrets, Khattak must investigate the death of a police informant at a potential terrorist cell. And in Among the Ruins, Khattak delves into the probably-political death of an Iranian woman whose documentary on the Green Revolution rendered her vulnerable to imprisonment and torture by the regime. In every case, Khan does a beautiful job of putting the history in service of the mystery without shortchanging the complexities of the horrors her characters are investigating.

It’s also lovely to watch Esa and Rachel’s worlds expand in this book. Though the cast perpetually changes jobs, ability to help with the mystery, and personal connections with Rachel and Esa, Khan never forgets which pieces are on the board. In Among the Ruins, she adds a fun new Plucky Girl Reporter sort of character about whom I hope to hear much more later — the Plucky Reporters in the Amelia Peabody series ended up being two of my favorite people, and not to spoil anything but at least one of them banged a Master Criminal one time.

On a more personal level, Khan captures my exact feelings about Iran in this book, the way I have felt about Iran ever since the Green Revolution happened and I started reading up on Iranian things. Though neither she nor Esa is Iranian, they share a deep admiration for the country’s history and culture, and an equally deep fury at the Iranian ayatollahs’ oppression of one of the most vibrant cultures the world has ever known. At one point, Rachel visits the following mosque:

That is not a CGI image from some new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type movie. It is a non-pretend real actual mosque called Nasir al-Mulk Mosque. I encourage you to google it: I actually picked one of the most muted pictures I could find, because if you google this place your instinct is that it cannot be real.1 Here’s what Rachel thinks about it:

There was something to be learned from the cosmic radiance of her surroundings. Her mind was seized by a painful imagining: What must it be like to know your civilization possessed of such celestial beauty, and to find yourself the object of diminishment?

Among the Ruins gave me feelings, y’all. One of these days this oppressive regime of the ayatollahs will be done, and when that happens I am going to go there and see these damn mosques.

  1. It is real. It is also not the most astonishing mosque in the city of Shiraz, where it’s located.

Review: Dreadnought, April Daniels

tfw basically all you have to say to convince anyone to read a book is the premise (cf: time-traveling pirates): TRANS GIRL SUPERHERO. Danny is struggling with how to tell her parents that she’s a girl when the superhero Dreadnought falls from the sky, bestows all his powers upon Danny, and magically transforms her body into a girl’s body. All at once, she has girl parts and superhero powers, and neither of those is exactly easy to explain to the people in her life.

Dreadnought

TRANS. GIRL. SUPERHERO.

So in the first place, it’s terrific to read more #ownvoices books about trans folks, and I hope as the years go on we’ll get more and more of these. I was particularly excited about Dreadnought because it’s as much about Danny learning how to be a superhero as it is about her transition — maybe more? dunno — and I love that. She never struggles with her own gender identity, only with other people’s expectations of her, which leaves a lot of room for anxieties and fears relating to the awesome godlike powers that have fallen upon her with no warning and no instruction manual.

Dreadnought is a first novel with some first novel problems. At times Daniel can be heavy-handed with her exposition, and there are plot threads and character arcs that receive inconsistent amounts of attention at different points in the book. By the end of the book, though, Daniels has set Danny up with a little team of her own, some impending doom to grapple with in future books, and an array of complicated relationships to continue navigating. The book isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely fun and engaging, and I’ll absolutely be picking up the sequel(s).

Content note! The superhero stuff in this book is mostly your typical fun superhero fare, but Danny faces a lot of ugliness around being trans. She gets called a bunch of slurs by people who should be on her side, including her father and best friend, and this doesn’t really let up as the book goes on. So be prepared for some characters to be awful and not to come around as time goes on. (Maybe in future books.)

TRANS GIRL SUPERHERO THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.

Review: Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly

Oh marvelous Audra of Unabridged Chick for putting me onto Amberlough by describing it (accurately) as “a gay spy thriller that’s allegedly Le Carre meets Cabaret.” This is a terrific and accurate description, although Cabaret is already pretty gay. Please hold while I go down a rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos from Cabaret and then conclude that this piecemeal bullshit is no good and I need to watch the movie again in its entirety. Enjoy this book cover while you’re waiting.

Amberlough

Cyril De Paul is a half-hearted spy for the government of Amberlough, one of four loosely affiliated governments in Gedda. His target (and lover) is Aristide Makricosta, a louche and lovely smuggler and emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret. And Cordelia Lehane (don’t you love everyone’s name?) is a dancer at the Bee and a small-time drug smuggler looking to improve her lot. All three of them get caught up in politics when Cyril’s cover is blown and he has to turn spy for the conservative (read: fascist) One State Party that’s threatening to gain control over all of Gedda.

One good thing about Amberlough, a book I enjoyed tremendously and hope you will all read so that the sales are good and we get a sequel,1 is that it’s one of those books you can tell pretty quickly if you’re going to like it or not. As with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, if you find the aesthetic to your taste after the first few chapters — even if you are thinking “there are a lot of geopolitics happening here” — you’re going to like the book. Donnelly lays out the geopolitics early and then gets on with the aesthetic, which I have seen described most accurately as “vintage-glam spy thriller.” Here are the first four chapters for your delectation and delight.

Another A+ thing about Amberlough is its high degree of sex positivity. Cordelia sleeps with who she wants to sleep with and refuses to feel guilty about it, and the book never asks her to. Aristide and Cyril bang on every available surface and sometimes even have slightly kinky sex, which like — this is weird, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered two characters having fun, matter-of-factly kinky sex outside of a romance novel? I rarely enough encounter scenes of characters having fun sex at all outside of romance novels, to be honest. What gives, literature? Amberlough is making you look bad!

And now for a spoilery warning. If you watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and had a minor nervous breakdown in the movie theater along the lines of oh my God what are we going to do what are we going to do oh God what are we going to do (not that I did ha ha no), be prepared to feel something similar when you get to the end of Amberlough. Things are not looking swell for our heroes at the end of Amberlough, although the nice thing is that you’ve spent enough time with them to have a pretty fair sense of how thoroughly each of them is going to fuck shit up for the Ospies after the end of the book. But still. Rogue One minor nervous breakdown warning.

In short, I loved this book, and I can’t wait for you to read it too! Get on it so you can come back and talk to me about it!

  1. Cause yo, this ending is DARK.

Review: Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, Helen Young

WHAT A GREAT BOOK. I impulse-ILLed it because — something? Why did I impulse-ILL this book? Was it honestly just because I was tipsy? I have two drinks let’s say once a week, and even so I haven’t impulse-ILLed a book since that one book about internet trolls that was weirdly sympathetic to internet trolls considering how terrible internet trolls are. I believe that what happened was I encountered this book while I was reading up on racebending for this blog post, and I was slightly tipsy and this book looked sooooo gooooooood and anyway it was a GREAT LIFE DECISION.

“Jenny, are you tipsy — while you are writing this?” NO. I am high on theories of racism and academic prose. Which reminds me, has anyone here read Sara Ahmed? I keep meaning to, and then her books keep being checked out of the library. Also, I feel like theory is a young person’s game. Like if I hadn’t read Judith Butler in college for a course, there is a 0% chance I would ever read Judith Butler now. I am better with praxis.

FAIR CRITIQUE.

Anyway, so this book is terrific. Young gets into the racial coding practices in some of the foundational works of fantasy literature — Tolkien if you’re fancy, Howard (he wrote Conan the Barbarian) for pulp — then comes for the nonsense arguments about “historical authenticity” and how they enact a racist vision of an imagined Middle Ages that draws less on evidence than on instinctive feelings about what that era most probably was like. And then there is this whole excellent chapter about orcs and their horde-like nature and racial coding in that, a chapter that includes the subheading “Orc Societies and Cultures,” which despite the utter misery and terrifyingness of our country’s descent into authoritarianism reminded me that in some respects I am awfully lucky to live here and now in a culture where books have subheadings like “Orc Societies and Cultures” and I can just read them willy-nilly.

hello there Mr. Orc I am sure there is no significance to the fact that you have dark skin and all of Our Heroes are white, white, white as the fresh-fallen snow

My God and then she starts talking about postcolonialism in fantasy stories and apparently there is a Cherokee fantasy author called Daniel Heath Justice whose oeuvre I must deposit directly into my brain. And all this talk about NK Jemisin and her depictions of the colonization of language and ideology in the Inheritance trilogy (which you may recall I really liked), and then as if that isn’t enough greatness for one book, an entire chapter on RaceFail ’09. What a terrific motherfucking book. Here’s a thing Heather Young says:

The caveat that representing characters of colour — and indeed any characters from minority and marginalized backgrounds — should be done with respect, and that doing so does not protect an author from criticism or entitle him or her to congratulations is overlooked, dismissed, and/or taken as a restriction according to this construct. The freedom to speak — write — un-censured is constructed as the freedom to write uncensored.

That last sentence is the tidiest way to phrase that sentiment that possibly I have ever seen.

And then there is a whole bibliography full of articles with titles like “Aboriginality in Science Fiction” and “Why Is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc?” No word of a lie, I went through this bibliography line by line and created myself a reading list based on it. Thanks Routledge. Thanks Helen Young. Thanks universe.

Review: A Hundred Thousand Worlds, Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl’s book A Hundred Thousand Worlds is not RPF, but RPF resides in its bones. Valerie Torrey is a Gillian Anderson analogue who is taking her son Alex across the country to meet his estranged father Andrew, who stars in a show that sounds strangely similar to Californication. Along the way she stops at various cons, signing autographs and answering questions about her stint on a show called Anomaly, where she met Andrew in the first place.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds

There also feature analogues of Gail Simone and Ed Brubaker and Alan Moore and a range of other comics lights, which if you know comics you may successfully puzzle out and if you do not then you are probably fine to read the book anyway, although you may wonder why we are spending so much time with this Gail character away from the primary mother-son relationship we care about.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds is wonderful in many ways, chief amongst them being its affectionate, clear-eyed depiction of fan cultures and the many worlds of geekery. It’s trying to be a lot of things, and it succeeds better at some than others: Interstitial chapters reveal the “origin stories” of real, fictional, and semi-fictional characters within the world of the book, which gets old quickly. On the other hand, Val’s bedtime ritual of telling Alex a (lightly or heavily edited) synopsis of various episodes of Anomaly works brilliantly as a means of building their relationship, the world Val comes from, and Proehl’s vision of raising a geeky kid. It made me want to tell my own nephew stories from my favorite television shows when he gets a little older.

How right you are, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

BUT. While Proehl takes exceptional care in depicting the worlds of geekery, the same cannot be said of his depiction of mental illness. Halfway through the book (spoilers), you learn that when Alex was a toddler, a deranged fan (who also happened to be sleeping with Andrew) shot and killed the Anomaly showrunner’s wife. The book refers to her only as The Woman until the very end, when a reporter shouts out the news that she has killed herself. The few bits of dialogue we get from her are all like this:

You’re her. But you’re older. Are you from the future? Are we in the future now? I’ve wanted so much to talk to you. To tell you how sorry I am. Or I was. Has it happened yet? I think it’s happened for me already and you were younger then. It all feels present. . . . I’m here and I’m talking to you but also right now I’m shooting her. Because if you can’t tell if it’s future or past, then it’s right now. It all happens at once, all the time.

In other words, crazy-person dialogue written by someone who’s never spoken to (or been) a crazy person, in the mouth of a character who receives no interiority or even the courtesy of a name (until she completes suicide). If an author wants to portray a violent mentally ill person, then fine, proceed with caution; but Proehl appears to have taken absolutely no care with this character, and so of course her portrayal reinforces toxic stereotypes about mental illness and violence.

Also, the book mixes up metonymy and synecdoche. Try harder next time.

ETA 21 June 2017: Hi everyone, I have an update! Author Bob Proehl found this post and emailed me to say that I was totally right about the ableism, it was obvious now that someone pointed it out, and he is really sorry and will try to do better next time. It made me come over all warm and fuzzy.

He also made a joke about metonymy and synecdoche that made me feel awful for being snotty about that. I was displacing my annoyance over the portrayal of the mentally ill lady onto this metonymy thing, and that’s mean. Metonymy and synecdoche are really hard to keep straight. Nobody should feel bad about getting them confused.

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.