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Without any career prospects after grad school, Alicia finds her dead-end retail job tolerable only because of two co-workers she sort-of calls friends: bright, bubbly Heaven and jaded, focused Mars. After a rare appearance at one of Heaven’s parties, Alicia tries to return to the Toronto apartment she shares with her mother only to be waylaid by River Mumma, the ethereal Jamaican spirit of the water. Somebody has stolen her comb, and if Alicia doesn’t return it to her in 24 hours, River Mumma will leave this world and take all her waters with her.

Unmoored by the request, Alicia sets off to find the thief. But as visions from her ancestors begin to overwhelm her, and wicked spirits called duppies start to chase down her and her friends, Alicia will need to choose a path, step into her family legacy and go where the river takes her.

Millennial ennui and Jamaican legend intertwine in Zalika Reid-Benta’s propulsive debut novel, River Mumma. Alicia’s quest rests on folk medicine and the oft-buried spirituality of diasporic communities, which Reid-Benta juxtaposes against modern issues of social media and poorly organized subway lines, but also uses to lend a mythic tone to her tale of young people struggling to find their purpose in a big city. 

The robust cast of characters, from Heaven’s spiritualist friend, Oni, to the creepy Whooping Boy duppy, keep the story feeling fresh as Alicia catapults between past and present, though River Mumma rightfully takes center stage with each appearance. “Water heals, water nourishes, water has power,” as Heaven declares, and Alicia’s family ties to the water spirit offer her a guiding light through the choppy seas of her late 20s. Ultimately, Alicia, Heaven and Mars learn to embrace the fullness of life over the apathy that helped them survive a mundane day to day. While these themes get lost on occasion, especially in the chaos of duppy attacks, the adventure along the way is worth a sometimes bumpy ride.

For those entranced by folkloric fantasy, and for fans of N.K. Jemisin and Kat Howard, River Mumma will be a must-read.

Millennial ennui and Jamaican legend intertwine in Zalika Reid-Benta's propulsive debut novel, River Mumma.
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Tiankawi may be a city half-submerged in water, but like so many cities, it is divided between the haves and the have-nots. The haves, who inhabit Tiankawi’s sweeping spires, are nearly all human. Some of the have-nots are too, but the majority of the city’s dispossessed are of the fathomfolk diaspora: people of the sea who have been forced out of their underwater havens by pollution and human-mediated destruction. Mira straddles both worlds. The first half-siren captain in the border guard, she wants to make a difference in the lives of those who she grew up with—if anyone will let her. Mira’s way of making change is slow and methodical, often relying on her well-connected water dragon boyfriend to help push for better legislation and provide an image of a model minority. Her boyfriend’s sister, Nami, has other plans. Banished to Tiankawi for her rebellious ways, she begins to associate with groups who view violence as necessary for revolution. As she bonds with these new friends, she begins to realize that their methods may be questionable, and soon both Nami and Mira will be forced to grapple with the fallout.

A modern urban fairy tale, Eliza Chan’s Fathomfolk pairs futuristic cityscapes with fantastical races and real-world politics. The folk are in many ways climate refugees, feared by their hosts and forced to wear bracelets that suppress their powers and prevent them from harming humans, even in self-defense. While it is tempting to draw parallels between the central struggle for the rights of fathomfolk and the rights of refugees in general, Chan’s focus on the intersectionality of issues within Tiankawi makes it satisfyingly difficult to draw a straight line between our world and hers. Chan shows the divisions among the folk, from species-based class divisions among the sea dragons, kappa and kelpies to a distaste for families of mixed heritage. But she also shows that a society bent on oppressing one group will surely not stop there: Tiankawi’s slums are as full of humans as they are full of folk, and its draconian policies harm everyone. This message, both obscured and amplified by the fantasy elements of the story, makes Fathomfolk a nuanced, powerful and complex parable, one that raises questions that linger far after the novel reaches its conclusion.

Set in a city that’s half aboveground and half underwater, Eliza Chan’s Fathomfolk pairs fantastical races and real-world politics.
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Mackerel Sky hasn’t had a good fishing season in centuries. Not since its founder betrayed the mermaid who captured his heart, and she cursed the Maine fishing village in retaliation. That grand tragedy begat many others, but no curse is absolute, even one cast by the most vengeful scion of the relentless ocean. And as young Leo Beale’s alcohol-fueled rebellion against his opiate-dependent mother leads him to the shelter of town elder Myra Kelley; Manon Perle quilts her way out of the miasma of grief over her daughter, born with her legs fused together like a mermaid’s tail and dead far too young; and the local high school’s star pitcher, Derrick Stowe, falls clandestinely in love, the mermaid’s magic may finally be at an ebb.

The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a book to submerge yourself in. Debut novelist MZ’s storytelling does not flow in straight lines. Rather, it eddies, lingering in tiny moments in the present before transporting readers back to the story’s headwaters, hundreds of years ago. She explores the past in loving detail, filling every page with lushly crafted, often poetic prose. The backstory seems, at times, irrelevant to the modern-day plotline, inserted more for world building than narrative necessity. However, MZ does nothing without purpose. Every half-finished historical anecdote and ancillary encounter contributes to the larger story, like a school of fish following an insistent current.This nonlinear structure is unified by an underlying theme of foreignness. Humans are creatures of the land, whose trespasses on water are tolerated at the mermaids’ whim, while the mermaids themselves are antithetical to land. At its core, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is both a tragedy and a romance, a tale of humans and merfolk struggling to live and love in each other’s domains, and how they all end up moored to the liminal space of the shore.

A lushly crafted tale of a Maine fishing village cursed by a mermaid, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a debut to submerge yourself in.

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