Earlier this month on The World in the Satin Bag, Shaun Duke posted on his increasing weariness of long novels, particularly those over 500 pages. I personally don’t mind a hefty volume, particularly in epic fantasy where simply being immersed in the world (even its bloat) is just as enjoyable as the story itself. But, I get his frustration. Most books don’t need such length. A compact novel can pack a satisfying spectrum of literary punches without demanding an epoch of reader commitment.
Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People had just this sort of effect on me with its mere 190 pages. Originally published by Jama-Everett in 2009 and subsequently reprinted by Small Beer Press, the novel shares elements of pulp noir and Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster series. The sequel, The Liminal War, is newly released at a similarly slender 224 pages.
Praised by critics and respected authors like Nalo Hopkinson, Jama-Everett’s debut is a powerful fantasy with action, heart, diversity, and a compelling hero/villain dynamic. Yet, that first novel also has some weaknesses, from maintaining consistent pacing control to the problematic view of women as driven solely through the protagonist’s eyes.
The protagonist (anti)hero of the novels is Taggert, an African-American by birth who has the special ability to manipulate the health of organisms, including himself. He can heal, and he can equally harm. For most of his life Taggert has lived abroad drifting from place to place in hopes of self-discovery, healing people whenever possible, but always moving quickly on to avoid notice, particularly from others with extraordinary abilities, the liminals.
At the start of The Liminal People, Taggert is settled under the control and mentorship of a powerful African drug-lord named Nordeen, a man with mysterious powers of his own who specializes in finding other liminals to either draw into his control or destroy. When Taggert receives a plea for help from a former lover, he faces conflict between promises made a lifetime ago and pledges made as an indentured member of Nordeen’s gang.
The Liminal War starts not long after the conclusion of that first novel. In discussing the new book, there will be spoilers for the first novel below.
Freshly emancipated from Nordeen’s control, Taggert has been trying to build up his new family and prepare for the inevitable retaliatory storm to come. Training his daughter Tamara to control her powers has allowed him to open up to her input and point of view. Meanwhile, Tamara’s friend Prentis has likewise grown more confident as a valued and beloved part of the team. Taggert’s ability to trust is slowly building and the mental connection that Tamara’s powers can facilitate has provided strength to the three beyond what any of them can individually achieve.
With this state quickly established in a few pages, The Liminal War wastes no time in starting the action of its new plot. As Taggert works to heal a woman of terminal cancer, Nordeen’s forces strike, attacking Tamara and kidnapping Prentis. With nowhere to turn, Tamara and her father hesitantly put their trust in Samantha, a woman introduced in the first book who claims allegiance to a mystical, higher power that stands in opposition to Nordeen and the greater powers he serves.
While unidentified to both Taggert and readers in The Liminal People, the two sides of the cosmic war that strive to use the liminals in their battles are now revealed in this novel. Going with Samantha to an isolated London island community, Taggert and Tamara learn that Nordeen has taken Prentis for the purposes of otherworldly agents of chaos, beings of entropy. Standing against this faction of disorder is the godlike macro-organism intelligence that Samantha and the community serve: a fungus known as the Manna that literally possesses its followers in symbiosis.
Whereas Nordeen’s masters simply seize liminals and control them without assent, the Manna will only join with those that accept and desire such union. Through the Manna’s primary spokesman, Miko, Taggert and Tamara learn that Nordeen has taken Prentis out of time into the past where he can be free to twist her gifts into a weapon of ultimate use for the agents of entropy. Against the wishes of the Manna, Taggert, Tamara, and Mico travel together across space-time — first to 1970s London and then to late 1930s Mississippi — to retrieve Prentis, despite knowing that they are rushing headlong into a deadly trap.
After the relatively straightforward plot of The Liminal People, the action of its sequel sounds crazy. The sudden outburst of battle in the opening pages of The Liminal War parallels a sudden explosion of pseudo-scientific mysticism, time-travel, and an epic, cosmic scope for the series. Personally, the explanation of the higher powers that remained mysterious in the first novel approaches being too weird, something perhaps better left vague.
Yet, even with the weirdness of this sequel, it’s hard for me to dismiss it and firmly conclude that I prefer the first novel. Both share a central theme around the issue of slavery or control versus living a life of your own choosing, of having something taken from you versus the conscious decision of sacrifice for a greater good. Given the characters and the history explored, this is addressed from a racial standpoint. But Jama-Everett also raises the issue in the simple context of responsibility in general human community: in friendship and family. The two novels just have very different levels of science fantasy driving the plot around that central theme.
Also, The Liminal War does extremely well in improving from the first novel in a couple of key respects. First, it provides a greater point of view (indirectly) from Tamara, and reduces some of the sexist tendencies of Taggert (which makes sense as he grows as a character). But the most glorious aspect of The Liminal War is its infusion and support of the plot with music, history, and cultural traditions of people of color — a tapestry well beyond what the debut novel included.
Mico is an artist whose magical powers lie in the soul of his music, which in turn draws from his past and ancestry. As the novel’s heroes travel through the past in search of Prentis, they experience the potency of reggae and American blues/jazz through encounters with both Bob Marley and Robert Johnson. In a compellingly sublime segment of the novel, the trio travels by boat across a dangerous sea between time and realms. When faced with danger, Mico calls upon aid from ghosts of African slaves who died en route from their native lands whence they were seized.
Prentis’ safety and the defeat of the forces of entropy thus become intimately linked with aspects of Black culture and history; the might of the future is built upon the unique soul, toil, and sacrifice of the past. It is a reversal of the violent thefts enacted by society in attempts to oppress and weaken a group of people; it turns this perversion into a celebrated freedom that entails purposeful giving for achieving pride and strength.
The Liminal War is thus rich in action and meaning that is impressive for its short length. Yet, there is a bit of a downside to such compact writing; some things can end up feeling undeveloped. The intricacies of all the otherworldly factions and the magical time travel of the story flowed too fast for me to easily grasp. Also, the novel sorely needs a section to further establish Prentis, a character who is largely absent from both novels, but whose safety is the empathic link here between readers and character motivation. The reader has never gotten to see this new family grow close together, so it is harder to become invested.
Nevertheless, The Liminal War is still an effective and remarkable novel that will interest anyone who enjoyed the first book, and I can reasonably see readers liking either one over the other for various, fair reasons. I really look forward to the next entry in this series, the further growth of its characters and its textured layers of Black culture and history.