Timely themes and a gripping narrative draw the reader in and keep them there.

THE FINAL STRIFE

In the first of a trilogy, three women disturb the social order of a rigidly caste-based society poised on the brink of disaster.

The red-blooded Embers command, the blue-blooded Dusters work, and the transparent-blooded, mutilated Ghostings serve. Sylah is a secret Ember, stolen as a toddler by the rebellious Duster sect known as the Sandstorm, who left a Duster in her place and raised her to revolution. Soldiers slaughtered the Sandstorm, and Sylah has spent the past several years as an aimless drug addict and fighter in an underground betting ring. A fellow Sandstorm survivor reenters her life and encourages her to enter the Aktibar, the fierce competition to become an heir to the empire’s ruling wardens. Due to some poor choices, Sylah ends up training another competitor instead: Anoor, a young woman everyone believes to be the Warden of Strength’s daughter when in fact she is one of the Duster children left by the Sandstorm. As Anoor advances in the Aktibar, Sylah must decide whether to rejoin the new Sandstorm or follow a different path to rebellion. Meanwhile, Hassa, a trans woman Ghosting who’s a friend of Sylah’s, seeks freedom for her people, all the while hiding secrets which strike at the Empire’s very foundations. The concept of people having different blood colors seems implausible and basing prejudice on it, ridiculous; but then, this is the same genre in which enormous dragons fly and breathe fire in sheer defiance of physics, appearing in stories written by authors from a world that foolishly constructs prejudice around skin color. Racism based on blood color also leads to some interesting possibilities for “passing,” which the author exploits to their fullest extent. The message is hardly subtle, but our current climate does not support much subtlety, and this blunt allegory—which also draws from Ghanaian and Arabian tales—is crafted into a compelling story with sympathetic characters. The depictions of Anoor, overcoming both the naïveté of a woman brought up in a pampered bubble and the bruised self-esteem of an abuse victim, and of Sylah, battling confused loyalties and a devastating addiction, are particularly well done.

Timely themes and a gripping narrative draw the reader in and keep them there.

Pub Date: June 21, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-35694-4

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Del Rey

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2022

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A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

LAPVONA

A peasant boy gets an introduction to civilization, such as it is.

Moshfegh’s gloomy fifth novel is set in the medieval village of Lapvona, ruled by Villiam, who’s paranoid and cruel when he’s not inept. (For instance, he sends murderous bandits into town if he hears of dissent among the farmers.) Marek, a 13-year-old boy, is becoming increasingly curious about his brutish provenance. He questions whether his mother indeed died in childbirth, as his father, Jude, insists. (The truth is more complicated, of course.) He struggles to reconcile the disease and death he witnesses with the stories of a forgiving God he was raised with. His sole source of comfort is Ina, the village wet nurse. During the course of the year tracked by the novel, Marek finds his way to Villiam, who fills his time with farcical and occasionally grotesque behavior. Villiam’s right-hand man, the village priest, is comically ignorant about Scripture, and Villiam compels Marek and a woman assistant into some scatological antics. The fact that another assistant is named Clod gives a sense of the intellectual atmosphere. Which is to say that the novel is constructed from familiar Moshfegh-ian stuff: dissolute characters, a willful rejection of social norms, the occasional gross-out. At her best, she’s worked that material into stark, brilliant character studies (Eileen, 2015) or contemporary satires (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, 2018). Here, though, the tone feels stiff and the story meanders. The Middle Ages provide a promising setting for her—she describes a social milieu that’s only clumsily established hierarchies, religion, and an economy, and she wants us to question whether we’ve evolved much beyond it. But the assortment of dim characters and perverse delusions does little more than repetitively expose the brutality of (as Villiam puts it) “this stupid life.”

A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

Pub Date: June 21, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-30026-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022

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A deep and grimly whimsical exploration of what it means to be a son, a father, and an artist.

THE SWALLOWED MAN

A retelling of Pinocchio from Geppetto's point of view.

The novel purports to be the memoirs of Geppetto, a carpenter from the town of Collodi, written in the belly of a vast fish that has swallowed him. Fortunately for Geppetto, the fish has also engulfed a ship, and its supplies—fresh water, candles, hardtack, captain’s logbook, ink—are what keep the Swallowed Man going. (Collodi is, of course, the name of the author of the original Pinocchio.) A misfit whose loneliness is equaled only by his drive to make art, Geppetto scours his surroundings for supplies, crafting sculptures out of pieces of the ship’s wood, softened hardtack, mussel shells, and his own hair, half hoping and half fearing to create a companion once again that will come to life. He befriends a crab that lives all too briefly in his beard, then mourns when “she” dies. Alone in the dark, he broods over his past, reflecting on his strained relationship with his father and his harsh treatment of his own “son”—Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that somehow came to life. In true Carey fashion, the author illustrates the novel with his own images of his protagonist’s art: sketches of Pinocchio, of woodworking tools, of the women Geppetto loved; photos of driftwood, of tintypes, of a sculpted self-portrait with seaweed hair. For all its humor, the novel is dark and claustrophobic, and its true subject is the responsibilities of creators. Remembering the first time he heard of the sea monster that was to swallow him, Geppetto wonders if the monster is somehow connected to Pinocchio: “The unnatural child had so thrown the world off-balance that it must be righted at any cost, and perhaps the only thing with the power to right it was a gigantic sea monster, born—I began to suppose this—just after I cracked the world by making a wooden person.” Later, contemplating his self-portrait bust, Geppetto asks, “Monster of the deep. Am I, then, the monster? Do I nightmare myself?”

A deep and grimly whimsical exploration of what it means to be a son, a father, and an artist.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18887-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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