Kindred by Octavia E Butler – review

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

“Slavery was a long slow process of dulling.”

On her twenty-sixth birthday, while unpacking boxes of books in her new home, Dana Edwards is overcome by dizziness. The next thing she knows, she is a meadow and a young, red-haired boy is drowning in a nearby river. Instinctively, Dana saves his life, not knowing that their fates are intricately linked…

Until recently, I believed that I did not know of Octavia E Butler, despite her supposedly being a legend of science fiction. When I went home for Christmas, however, a book on my mother’s shelf caught my eye. Dawn by Octavia E Butler. When I was about 10, I was obsessed with the idea of finally reading “grown-up books”. My mother gave me Dawn. I quickly devoured the entire Lilith’s Brood series, despite only being able to glimpse the meaning of the story. As I went through my undergraduate studies in biology, I often thought about the books and their, to me, revolutionary ideas. As a result of this Christmas revelation, I was pretty excited to read Kindred.

The author wastes no time to get to the heart of the story at the beginning of the book – within the first ten pages, the reader in the middle of the action. As someone who gets frustrated by a lot of the long-windedness of early fantasy and sci-fi, this was truly refreshing. The amount of research that Butler evidently invested into setting this world of the early 1800s is astounding. She manages to convey the imminent sense of threat and pervasive terror the character experiences at all times very well. As a white female, I feel this book has taught me a lot about privilege. According to a podcast I recently listened to, lack of privilege means that no right cannot be taken away – I was distinctly reminded of this as I was reading Kindred. It is epitomized by the relationships in this book – not only between Dana and Weylin/Rufus, but also in her relationship with Alice. For the first two-thirds of the book, the plot was well paced with plenty of tension, which I felt the last third distinctly lacked. I finished the book through sheer determination.

One of my main gripes with Kindred is that I felt no connection to the characters whatsoever. For the majority of the book, Butler flatly describes the action and the protagonist’s thoughts. Even her perpetual fear appears to be held at arm’s length: “The possibility of meeting a white adult here frightened me, more than the possibility of street violence ever had at home.” There are no thudding hearts and clenching guts; no cold sweats and racing thoughts. In several instances, Dana goes from being calm and analytical to completely hysterical in the blink of an eye. Further, despite being depicted as a strong, independent female at the beginning of the book, she continues to trust Rufus, even though he continually betrays her. There is very little evolution in Dana’s character throughout the book until the very final resolution, which felt forced to me. I felt similarly about Rufus, who appears to retain the mind of an 11-year-old for the whole story. Other characters, like Kevin, Sarah and Nigel, felt entirely nondescript.

Overall, Kindred by Octavia E Butler encouraged me to reflect on certain topics that I have had the privilege of never having to think about. I believe this book will stay with me in the future, not because of its breathtaking plot or character design, but because of the issues it explores. Did this book blow me away? Definitely not. Did it make me think? Certainly.

“When are you coming home tonight?”

Hal stared at the text on his phone warily. He had been married to Sharon for 23 years and she had never asked him this. After all, he left his desk at Carter Inc. every day at five o’clock sharp, drove the 45-minute commute home, parked his car in the driveway, kissed Sharon on his way through the house and settled down just in time for the six o’clock news. He didn’t see what should be different about today.

“Same time as always,” he texted back.

Hal turned back to his computer and resumed his work. Halfway through entering a list of sales figures into a spreadsheet, his typing slowed. He furrowed his brow. Suspicion gnawed at him. Picking his phone back up, he wrote, “Is everything okay?”

Sharon’s reply was immediate: “Yes, I’ll see you tonight. Love you!”

In itself, there was nothing peculiar about a wife asking her husband when he’d get home. It was perfectly normal. But something didn’t feel right about this. Hal racked his brain, trying to pinpoint whether anything had been different about Sharon’s behavior lately. His wife was working on building her own massage business, so she travelled to clients all over the city most days. She was always exhausted in the evenings. Hal had been dealing with the idiot contractors who were converting the garage into a massage studio, fixing their mistakes on his free weekends. They had both been stressed. They had not spoken much.

Now that Hal was thinking about it, he wasn’t sure he had been a very supportive husband. When was the last time he did something nice for Sharon? He bought her flowers three days ago (carnations, her favorite). He picked up takeaway a couple of times so she wouldn’t have to cook after a long day. But they hadn’t talked much lately. Is this what this was about?

He looked at his phone again. “Yes, I’ll see you tonight. I love you!”

For the rest of the day, Hal struggled to concentrate on his work. There was one possibility he distinctly did not want to think about. Could Sharon be unhappy in their marriage? He pointedly ignored the intrusive thoughts, desperately fixating on his spreadsheets.

By 4:50 pm, Hal had worked himself into such a state that he stormed out of the Carter Inc. offices, jumped in his car and sped the whole way home. When he got out, he slammed the car door harder than necessary, marched up the driveway and took the front steps two at a time.

“Sharon?” he yelled as he stepped in the front door. No reply. “Sharon!” he tried again. Nothing.

As he stepped further into the hallway, he heard the whisper of movement upstairs. Hal fought down the wave of unease, squirming in the pit of his stomach. He moved toward the staircase, walking up the carpeted steps as quietly as he could. At the top of the steps, he stopped and listened. A sound of cloth-on-cloth was coming from the bedroom at the end of the hall. The door was slightly ajar. Someone was murmuring. The curtains were being drawn.

As he stepped slowly, cautiously, down the corridor, his stomach twisted into a tangled, sickening knot. Through the open door, he could see the bed. Nobody was in it, but he could see Sharon standing at the window, where she had just drawn the curtains. She was wearing a negligé he had never seen before. Who was murmuring?

The knot in Hal’s stomach lurched painfully. The only way out is through, he thought. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open. The door creaked. Sharon started and turned toward the noise.

“Hal!” she exclaimed. “You’re home early.”

“Yeah…” he replied, casting his glance around the room. Searching.

Sharon looked at him, eyes wide. After a moment, she spread her hands and said weakly: “Surprise!”

Hal stared at her uncomprehendingly, then looked around the room again. Only now did he notice that scented candles were burning. The carnations he gave her adorned the bedside table.

“You kind of ruined it,” Sharon said with a soft smile, shifting her weight. When Hal didn’t reply, clearly not understanding, she said: “I meant to surprise you,” gesturing toward the room. A soft song emanated from the old radio.

Looking at Sharon, it suddenly struck him how beautiful she looked. The lace negligé perfectly hugged her body, accentuated her soft curves. Her hair flowed across her shoulders, perfectly curled. The flickering light of the candles danced on her cupid’s bow. Touched her eyelashes. The knot in Hal’s stomach untwisted as he finally understood.

“Oh,” he said.

The prompt for this piece was: surprise, lace
Constructive feedback is welcome!

The Dark Vault by V. E. Schwab – review

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In the Archive, the dead rest on the shelves like books. Sometimes they wake up and it is Mackenzie Bishop’s job to return the Histories before they slip into madness. As a strange boy appears in Mackenzie’s territory, the Archive is plunged into unrest and Mackenzie uncovers a murder that does not let her go…

I have set myself a challenge this year: to review every book I read. It is only appropriate that I should start with a series written by one of my favorite authors. After Shades of Magic and Monsters of Verity, The Dark Vault (The Archived and The Unbound) is the third series by Victoria Schwab that I have simply devoured.

Let’s start with The Archived. Mackenzie Bishop is the smart, strong, witty female protagonist, recognizable in many of Victoria’s stories. The impact of her hidden identity on every aspect of her real life (friends, family, and, later in the series, school and friends) are wonderfully introduced and illustrated. Her feeling of isolation, despite desperately wanting to connect, deeply resonated with me. Wesley Ayers, like so many other men Victoria Schwab dreams up, simply stole my heart. His easy wit, openness, and charm were intoxicating and complemented Mackenzie’s guarded character perfectly. I really wish we had found out more about his background throughout the series. Finally, there is the antagonist of the story. They were masterfully introduced and played their part convincingly in the beginning, but I was left slightly confused by their actions later on in the book. Even though their motivation was explained toward the end of the book, it did not make complete sense to me (or perhaps, it was not supposed to make sense). The secondary characters in Schwab’s writing were well-developed as always, contributing to the richness of the world – Roland and Mackenzie’s mother were my favorites.

The world in which this story takes place carries Victoria Schwab’s unique brand of fantasy. I could relate to Mackenzie’s feeling of awe for the Archive, and there is a persistent sense of mystery throughout the book due to the sheer number of secrets and oddities in the place. The main plot of The Archived did not actually become clear until approximately halfway through the book. However, Schwab skillfully keeps the reader engaged by introducing breadcrumbs of questions, all the while gradually revealing the Archive’s secrets. Mackenzie’s secrets create a threatening undertone of increasing tension, leading up to the final plot twist of the book (which I did not see coming at all). The evolution of Mackenzie’s character is clear throughout the book as she slowly starts to question her beliefs and ends in a wholesome resolution.

In The Unbound, we re-join Mackenzie three weeks after the end of the previous story. The plot in this book is structured similarly to The Archived – the main plot does not become clear until later on, and small mysteries kept me reading until then. The reveal was a little too easy for me to guess and lacked the gobsmacking qualities of the previous book. Some details were left unexplained (I would not be able to say which without spoilers) and I really disliked the ending of the book, as I felt it was incompatible with Mackenzie’s character up to that point.

One thing that kept me engaged throughout the story was Schwab’s excellent portrayal of the effects of trauma. Mackenzie’s inability to sleep, the horrifyingly realistic dreams, her increasing isolation from her loved ones, all demonstrated the lasting effects of what happened to her. Interestingly, this also mirrors the strain created by the loss of her brother in the previous book. Poor girl can’t catch a break. Even though the characters in The Unbound were every bit as immersive as before, I got slightly frustrated by Mackenzie’s actions. She made exactly the same mistakes as in the previous book, negating the evolution the character had undergone. Consequently, The Unbound reads like a dramatic replica of The Archived, which left me feeling like the story was a pretext for further developing Mackenzie’s and Wesley’s relationship (which I’m not mad about, but just sayin’ it didn’t sit quite right with me).

Overall, Victoria Schwab’s writing is a pleasure to read as always – immersive, captivating, delightful. As to be expected in an author’s earlier work, I noticed a few snags here and there, but this in no way diminished my enjoyment of The Dark Vault. This book gave me my first serious book hangover in a very long time – here’s to hoping that I can move on now. For me, this story beautifully explores our need to question power structures. The relationships in this series, between Mackenzie, Wesley, and her friends and family, show the value of love, trust and of sharing our burdens. After all, the armor we build doesn’t just keep other people out, it keeps us in.