This novella is by Kai Ashante Wilson and won the Crawford Award for best debut novel of 2015. I read this in the Long List Anthology, Volume 2, published 2016.
The story follows Demane, a demigod who’s in love with another demigod: Captain Isa. Where Demane’s powers lie in healing, Isa’s lie in being super attractive, being solar-powered (a ‘heliovore’ that eats the sun), and fighting awesomely (although Demane is also not bad at fighting). They are part of an all-male mercenary group protecting a caravan that is travelling across the Wildeeps. Each member of this group presumably has their own reason for risking their lives on this dangerous journey, but it is mostly financial. Most of the story takes place at an oasis before embarking on the Wildeeps proper. At the ‘Mother of Waters’, Demane introspects and reminisces about how he met Isa, the girl he left behind back home, and his ancient Auntie who taught him what little magic he knows. Eventually they leave the town to traverse the Wildeeps on a long road through a treacherous forest where man-eating demigod ‘jook tigers’ lurk. The general gist is that Demane is super in love with Isa, he hates jook tigers, and Isa dies via jook tiger before he can ever settle down with Demane in Demane’s longed-for happy-ever-after. People are homophobic and science-phobic and seem to be judged through a surprisingly modern lens, given that Demane is presumably a citizen of that world.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about this story. I just couldn’t work out what it was meant to be. For example, the characters seemed to be African in nature, but the language – arroyo, etc. – describe North- or South-American terrain. The language wandered from urban slang to epic poetry to pseudoscientific jargon (eg. ‘saprogenic posession’ to describe infection). That was actually fine by me, although I got tired of the jargon very fast – there is no shame in just writing a full-out fantasy story. Some of the flowery language also got a bit much; in the final chapter, you are supposed to infer that Demane was crying from the rinsed “deltas” on his cheeks; I had just assumed it was raining.
The story was not told in a chronological way, which did not bother me as much as it seems to other online reviewers. However, I think I would have enjoyed more payoff. I found Isa’s and Demane’s relationship a mystery that was never resolved. From Demane’s side, there is clearly only dumb, innocent adoration; however, I couldn’t work out if Isa returned his feelings or if there was some kind of manipulation going on there for whatever mysterious end-goal Isa had. Why was Isa even with the caravan? It is hinted that he made some kind of unwise pledge to a former lover, but that is never followed through. Possibly I’m missing out on some kind of cultural or historical knowledge here.
At the end of this novella, Demane tries super hard to save Isa from the second jook tiger that every reader saw coming from a mile off, and presumably fails. This is interesting because this is only the second story in which I’ve seen this particular construction: where the author places the actual conclusion in the penultimate chapter so that the climax, which happens chronologically earlier, gives a suitably emotional ending. The first example was Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. Where the Bartimaeus Trilogy ended on themes that had been advanced throughout all three reasonably long novels, however, the timing here didn’t seem to have an obvious reason.
I’m really interested in this world. I’m interested in Demane’s semi-god Auntie who taught him everything he knows. I would love to find out what actually happened to the divine beings and how Ashante tries to sciencify this very fantastical story. I want to know why Isa is so angsty. But this story just doesn’t deliver. Maybe that’s why I closed it out with a vague sense of disappointment. I understand that Wilson continues this universe in A Taste of Honey, but at the moment, that is not something I’m raring to read.