In 1954, African American veteran Atticus Turner returns to his hometown of Chicago on a summons from his estranged father. When he arrives and discovers his father has gone missing, the trail leads to a small town in New England. Atticus sets off on a road trip with his uncle and a childhood friend, eventually getting pulled into the machinations of a centuries-old cabal of wizards trying to perform a ritual to summon eldritch powers and bring about the apocalypse.
Mild spoiler warning below about the format of the book, which surprised me and ended up being one of my favorite things about it.
- Clever, funny, genuinely horrific, with characters that you can’t help but root for even when they’re being abrasive.
- Somehow has all the fun readability of pulp and genre fiction, and illustrations and accounts of the tragedies and injustices of living in the US in the Jim Crow era. The sci-fi/supernatural horror and historical fiction aspects of the book inform each other and are perfectly intertwined, without sacrificing any of the fun of one or any of the weight of the other.
- The characters are smart, capable, and possibly most surprising, sci-fi and astronomy nerds. It feels like one of the most pernicious stereotypes in popular media that African Americans aren’t interested in the kinds of nerdy stuff that tends to be depicted as only appealing to white males. Even “nice racism” tends to suggest that black men and women are just too cool to be interested in science fiction or horror, which is, of course, complete bullshit. (And yet, when I saw “Tightrope” for the first time, I still found myself surprised that someone as cool and drop-dead gorgeous as Janelle Monáe made a three-album concept series inspired by Afrofuturism and casting herself as an android).
- Because of the above, all of the characters are matter-of-fact and practical when faced with supernatural horrors, making the story work as horror and action/adventure as they find a way out.
- The format was such a wonderful surprise: the initial story is relatively quickly resolved, and then the book becomes more of an anthology of inter-related stories, each focused on a different main character. This allows the book to have sweeping changes in subject and tone — ghost story, sci-fi fantasy, supernatural heist story, body horror — all of which feel as if they’re part of the same story but never slowing down the pace.
- Each story brilliantly acts as a parable/illustration of the injustices African Americans faced in the Jim Crow era: redlining, sundown towns, needing the Green Book to travel safely, the Tulsa riots, etc. It refuses to obfuscate or sugar-coat any of these topics, but it also never feels too heavy-handed. The topic is always given a supernatural twist, where the reality of life in the US is often at least as harrowing as whatever cosmic horror the gang is faced with this week.
- Slow reading for me, as several parts made me so angry that I had to put the book down for a while. This might be specific to people like me who are super-sensitive to reading about injustices, having never been the target of them ourselves.
- Encounters with the real over-the-top eldritch horrors are wrapped up fairly quickly, which does avoid overly long and drawn-out descriptions of the indescribable, but also feels a bit anti-climactic.
- If you’re vindictive like me, you kind of want to see the bad guys made to suffer a bit more.
I absolutely loved this book. While it sometimes made me so angry that I had to put it down for a couple of days, the anger at the injustices just make the victories feel much more satisfying. I’m even more eager to watch the TV series now, especially knowing that the novel was originally conceived as a TV pitch.