[REVIEW] The Lesson, Cadwell Turnbull

(Buy it HERE.)

At first this book seems like a simple alien invasion with a little interspecies love gone wrong subplot, set in author Cadwell Turnbull’s native US Virgin Islands. Not an unusual story, but set in an unusual(for sci-fi) place. An alien race called the Ynaa descend on Water Island in a conch-shell shaped ship. They’re not hostile, exactly, but they are touchy in a way that can be dangerous, and they quickly impose a reign of tense, martial superiority over the residents of Charlotte Amalie. The islanders have a variety of reactions, of course. Some love the Ynaa, some hate them, and some maintain a wary, distant tolerance. However, everyone’s life is deeply affected by the aggressive, possessive stance the Ynaa take over their corner of Earth, mitigated only by the presence of a centuries old ambassador who’s been living undercover among the humans as a Black woman and has learned to care for the locals. (One human is affected by this much more…personally, than the rest.) The ambassador’s presence doesn’t stave off violence successfully and the book leads to a devastating, scary conclusion that took me completely by surprise given the slow setup. There’s nothing exactly new about this book–a lot of sci-fi deals with social integration and relationships with alien beings and all the ways first contact could possibly go wrong. My first impressions of this book were that the only thing that made it truly special was the setting.

I’m happy to say my first impressions were wrong. By the time we get to the first big death, a lot of layers have been unrolled and continue to be, making this a remarkably culturally literate bit of speculative fiction. It’s more special than it appears at first glance. Inside this alien invasion are themes of generational and historical trauma, colonialism, gendered violence in African diasporic communities, and some very interesting commentary on what it takes for victims to become conquerors–or if that’s even a thing that can really happen.

Despite all of that the novel never feels too heavy and is as entertaining as it is deep. It’s distinctly Caribbean as well, in a very natural way. I liked it and will definitely keep an eye out for whatever Turnbull writes next.

Okay, all of that and still only 4 stars? I have to be honest and say that the writing never quite did it for me. It’s very much what I like to call “MFA style”–large, self-conscious blocks of very deliberate, laborious action spattered with short paragraphs of weirdly purple descriptive prose. It’s competent and the story is well-crafted enough to make it tolerable, but man, loosen up a little next time, will you? I am here for global science fiction entirely and I want more books from Turnbull, but I also want him to unstarch his collar a little bit next time, let the prose flow and the culture shine through so the themes bubble a little longer in the reader’s spirit.

Overall though, I liked this quite a bit, and I’m excited about the wave of diasporic takes on science fiction it’s riding the crest of. It’d be interesting to see a thematic trilogy of books set in the Virgin Islands from this author, kind of like Tade Thomson’s Rosewater series. (Aliens invade rural Nigeria, fix everything, it doesn’t matter. Great books, go read them.)

Four stars and a universal translation device to The Lesson.

(Thanks for reading, beautiful people. As always, this obligatory disclaimer comes in peace. Until aliens invade, the internet costs money and as a result this blog is an affiliate of Bookshop. Any clicks and purchases will result in a commission being earned.)


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