My introduction to Alaya Dawn Johnson was in the anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns. I know I just said I don’t like short stories, but, I mean, Zombies vs. Unicorns. That is a battle for the ages. Plus a bunch of the contributers were young adult authors I already liked, so I had high hopes for its entertainment value, and was not disappointed. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s story of gay zombie teen romance was one of my favorites, so I looked up her other work, and the (2/3rds completed) Spirit Binders trilogy looked right up my alley.
Racing the Dark is Johnson’s debut novel. Lana is 13 and has just become eligible to join the adult women of her tropical island home in diving for the precious jewels that form inside sacred mandagah fish. Lana’s world consists of many islands, threatened by water and volcanoes, but kept safe through the Great Bindings of the spirits of Water, Fire, and Death. Maintaining those bindings is at the heart of most of island society.
On Lana’s first dive, a dying mandagah fish gives to her a special red jewel that marks her as powerful, destined to become one of the island’s elders. Lana is afraid of the prospect of having no choice but the life of an elder, so she hides the jewel. Which is, of course, always the first mistake. For a little while, everything is ok, her life is simple and peaceful, and she dreams of going to visit the cities of the “civilized’ inner islands with her childhood friend. But strange changes come to the island: heavy rains cause massive floods, and saltwater intrusions into the surrounding fresh water start to kill off the mandagah fish - and the divers’ livelihood. Lana still does not tell anyone about her marked status as the islanders struggle to save what they can of their way of life, and she moves with her family to the nearest city. Things do not go well for them in the city, and out of desperation, Lana becomes apprenticed to the strange and powerful witch Akua who has noticed Lana’s own latent power. Strange and powerful witches being what they are, things are not all as they seem, and Lana becomes caught up in great and dangerous events.
Roger Ebert has coined the term “idiot plot” to describe movie plots that only make sense if all of the main characters are complete idiots who can’t think of the obvious solutions to their problems. I’m not going to claim that Racing the Dark has an idiot plot, but man, it’s hard to sit back and watch Lana make the choices she makes, when my genre-savvy perspective makes it so obvious they’re mistakes. Ok, hiding the jewel when you’re thirteen because you’re scared and just want to be normal is a pretty typical move, and entirely understandable. But when you go to live with a mysterious witch who won’t answer your questions and does kind of awful things to the people who come to her for magical help, and practically your only friend is a water sprite who keeps trying to warn you about trusting the witch, well, you really ought to start getting suspicious sometime. You know, try a little harder to get some information, figure out some alternative to doing everything Akua says…something! Lana has flashes of doubt now and then, but she just kind of shrugs them off and keeps going, and I didn’t even understand why. There are a lot of things I loved about this book: the setting and culture are wonderfully detailed and interesting, the plot is many-layered, and you can feel the wheels within wheels all slowly building up to something dramatic, but for the first 2/3rds of the book, I hardly got any sense of Lana’s motivations, or even her relationship with Akua - I’m told about it, but never really see its foundations. There are some scenes where Lana is unhappy with the way Akua does business, and suffers the consequences of association with her, but when it comes to making the difficult choices that set her path in motion, it’s like that never happened. I’m not asking for a completely different plot here, I just want to know why Lana acts the way she does.
I will say, the day after I finished Racing the Dark I went right back to the library and checked out the sequel - Racing the Dark has a serious cliffhanger ending, and pretty much nothing at all is explained or resolved - and Lana’s willful blindness in her time with Akua is a significant theme in The Burning City. So that was some consolation - she really has to face her failures, and the ways she was complicit in Akua’s schemes. And I liked The Burning City even more than Racing the Dark - a full review would be impossible without spoilers, since it’s basically a continuation of all of the same story, but Lana grows up a lot, becomes a more fully developed character, all kinds of crazy plot stuff happens, and there are complex and interesting characters galore. Some of those characters get into really difficult ethical arguments with each other, and while I know which side my heart belongs to, Johnson does a great job of showing the reasons why each side makes the choices they do, and how sometimes there are no truly right answers.
So on the whole, I liked both books very much, and since The Burning City also more or less ends with a cliffhanger, I am waiting eagerly for the third book. Sadly, as there were three years between books 1 and 2, and The Burning City just came out last June, I think I’m going to have awhile to wait. If you are like me and deal poorly with unresolved cliffhangers, I definitely suggest putting this series on your list, but maybe not reading it until book 3 is available.