Ballad of Black Tom and A Time of Changes reviewed

I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while. What the heck, time to change that trend.

The Ballad of Black TomThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Victor Lavalle is a writer that hasn’t been on my radar screen until recently. I was introduced to him through an ebook sale and picked up THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM at a decent price. The fact that this is a retelling of Lovecraft’s HORROR OF RED HOOK, although through the eyes of a black resident of Harlem, was a big draw for me. Lavalle’s version– which gives the reader the point of view of how the events of the Red Hook story would look from the eyes of Charles Thomas Tester, the charismatic would be musician that gets recruited into the service of the main antagonist from the Red Hook story (Robert Suydam). The underlying themes of racism, exclusion and xenophobia, which was prevalent in Lovecraft’s writing, become a foundation for LaValle’s wonderful retelling of the same events from a different perspective. A perspective which just might be asking, “how is the day to day sadism and racism I experience as a black man in New York any better than an invasion of the elder gods?”

Kudos to Lavalle for this novella length take on a classic Lovecraft story. I’ll be reading more of his work after this.

A Time of ChangesA Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Robert Silverberg’s surprisingly engrossing story is about what starts out to be an alien culture but really, as the narrative moves onward, you discover the narrator is another form of human, descended from colonists that have lived on the planet Borthan for more than a thousand years. Earth is just a polluted backwater planet with a tradition of being the center of humanity– but in reality, “it’s a dump”. On Borthan, the colonists were highly religious and created a form of ritual self abasement and lack of regard for self, called the Covenant. Under the terms of the Covenant, a citizen does not us “I” or “Me” which are considered somewhat obscene. Instead, natives of Borthan use “one” to reference self… as in “One acknowledges it is a fine day today”.
The central focus and narrator is one Kinnall Derrival, a second son of the king of a small Northern Kingdom on Borthan. Like all other Borthans, Kinnall grew up with the “polite grammar” of never using “I”, “Me” or “Us”– His father is cold and the only solace he receives in life is his “Bond Sister” and “Bond Brother”.. voluntary positions similar to therapists where a citizen can open themselves up a little to discuss what is in their souls. Derrival loves his bond-sister, but the culture declares that kind of union as obscene as well. Derrival suffers exile when his father dies, then a second chance at life in another province. He meets an actual Earthling trader named Schweiz who tells him of a drug (similar to cocaine) that “Opens the mind”. The next part of the story is a long hallucinogenic trip as Derrival comes to terms with his own sense of self and being able to commune with others. The drug (it is never given a name) seems to open people’s innermost selves to each other. On Borthan, this is unheard of. The drug, and Derrival’s dependency on it, leads to his downfall from a position of wealth and influence. His ultimate fate is unknown, and we are given only the final pages in a memoir by which to judge his fate.

The entire novel is told in a biographical format, as if written by Derrival.. indeed the very first sentence, “I am Kinnall Derrival, and I will tell you all about myself”, is the character, as author, trying to overcome what is considered blasphemy. I found the book pretty engrossing but a bit thin here and there. The explanation for the weird origin of the “Covenant” which Derrival seeks to throw down is mythical .. interesting but one can derive different conclusions from it. I’ve always liked Silverberg, and he didn’t disappoint me here, it’s just not one of his “meatier” efforts, like the Valentine’s castle sequence. Enjoyable, but not incredibly deep.

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