Recently, I read a thread in a Facebook horror group about horror novels that turn out to be science fiction, which the poster particularly despised. I've read books like that, though I don't despise them, but the idea came up here in reverse, because this twelfth novel from Steven Barnes, his fifth solo and only his second solo standalone, was clearly marketed as science fiction but it's quickly obvious that it's a supernatural horror novel.
And that's fine. I'm not complaining. It actually turns out to be a historical supernatural horror novel, so I'm particularly happy about it. There aren't a lot of those out there, especially tied to slavery and written by an African American author. In fact, the most obvious comparison I can give isn't to a novel at all but to a film, because parts are reminiscent of Candyman, the film based on Clive Barker's short story ‘The Forbidden’, even if this avoids urban legends entirely and plays the horror angle straight.
The concept takes a while to develop, because there's mystery here as well and a need for two racially different worlds to come together.
The white world is centred on Austin Tucker, a former Green Beret. Early in the book, he watches his home invaded, his daughter spontaneously combust, his wife and son murdered. The only way to make that more traumatic is to send him to prison for the crime, which he did not commit. While he's not a white supremacist, he saves the life of a prominent one inside, and so that world is a welcoming and safe one for him, if he'll ever need. Which he will.
The black world is centred on Derek Waites, who almost goes through the same thing. He's a software developer and former hacker and the primary reason the bad guys don't get away with a repeat of the Tucker incident is because it's attempted in public and it's fought off. In Derek's instance, it's his ex-wife, who he really wants back from the TV star she moved on to, and his son and daughter. The latter is saved from spontaneous combustion by rapid thinking, a quickly turned on shower and lots of ice.
But it prompts him to investigate and he discovers that this is far from the unique instance it sounds like it should be. It's happened surprisingly often and he figures out the commonality and the fact that there's organisation behind it, which is well-funded and well-embedded into society. This rabbit hole can't get much more dangerous, but it promptly does when he breaks Austin Tucker out of prison, because they have to work together on this. In a white supremacist compound, race is everywhere here, but it's evenly handed, whether events unfold in the present or the past. Sure, there's a black good guy and a white bad guy but not all the white guys are bad and not all the black guys are good. This looks deep, with sections unfolding in the south while slavery was legal and others taking place in LA both before and after the verdict is delivered in the Rodney King trial. Barnes looks at privilege too, both white and black, what some people have to do to get ahead and how that can come back to bite them. It's a thoughtful read. Given 2020, this history is topical again.
It's also an action-packed read. Waites is no fighter, even if he ends up in a couple of fights doing what he can, which means that it's Tucker who takes the now traditional role in a Barnes solo novel of a fighter with an edge on everyone else. Three of the four others thus far feature Aubry Knight, who starts out as a nullboxer faster than anyone else, even if he doesn't learn why until the last book in his trilogy. The other is ‘The Kundalini Equation’, a book about a young man who gains his edge by tapping into a primal power long forgotten about. There's a reason why Tucker has an edge, though we get to learn about it at the same time he does.
I liked this one a lot and not just because I started it forty years to the day after it starts. The first scene, with the attack on Tucker's family, starts on Thursday, November 27, 1980, which is Thanksgiving. I started this book at night as Thursday, November 26, 2020, became Friday, November 27. That's Thanksgiving and it wasn't deliberate in the slightest, but it's cool.
I liked it because Barnes, unencumbered by collaborators for a change and writing his first solo novel in a decade, really seems to have been enjoying himself. The prose flows well enough that I read the last three quarters of this four-hundred-page book in a single session and wanted to keep going. I read the decade of Aubry Knight books, from 1983's ‘Street Lethal’ to 1993's ‘Firedance’, within eight months and it was clear how much Barnes grew as a writer in that time. He's obviously comfortable here and the prose feels as if it just poured out of his fingers onto the page.
There's not really anything I didn't like about this one at all. Sure, this was given the unenviable task of following ‘Beowulf's Children’ within Barnes's bibliography, but then that was the best thing I think he'd worked on and a highlight of my reading year. Coming in after that in my ranking of his work is no disgrace. My second favourite of his books until this point may be ‘The Kundalini Equation’ and this is easily a step up from that.
And, while some people apparently don't like their genre books to come in covers that label them as something else, I don't care. My Tor paperback is clearly labelled science fiction, even though the contents really aren't. But I'm a fan of supernatural horror, even more so when it has historical ties. It seems to point the way towards even more genre hopping than Barnes has already done.
After all, he started out with ‘Dream Park’, which is a fascinating merging of fantasy and science fiction. For much of ‘Street Lethal’, I felt I was reading a men's adventure novel and there's more of that in ‘Firedance’, which is also a spy novel. I see that next month will be ‘Iron Shadows’, which seems to be a mystery and a thriller as much as a science fiction novel. After that is a’ Star Trek: Deep Space 9’ novel and it isn't far from there to alternate history and straight mystery in his Insh'Allah and Tennyson Hardwick books.
The other note to make, looking at his bibliography, is that Barnes wrote a lot of collaborative works early on. Of his first eleven novels, five were with Larry Niven and two were with Niven and Jerry Pournelle. After ‘Beowulf's Children’ in 1995, eight of his next nine novels, starting with this one, were solo works, with only ‘Saturn's Race’, written with Niven, a collaboration.
I wonder how much those two things tie together. Did he write more multi-genre books because he wasn't collaborating on straight science fiction? Or did he start to write more solo books because he wanted to explore genres outside of sf? Of course, it's entirely possible that it's neither and it's just one of those things that happened.
Whatever, I'm intrigued about next month's book, because, of all Barnes's novels thus far, it seems to be the most inconsistently rated. Some people love it. Some people absolutely hate it. Going with the mindset that great art pisses people off, I'm looking forward to ‘Iron Shadows'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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