Can you imagine never hearing a bird’s song again? The absence that would lay just under the surface of the everyday clatters of civilization. When would that silence become too much to bear? How far can we separate from nature and for how long before we lose ourselves? These are the questions I was asking myself while reading Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson, a dystopian/sci-fi/cli-fi novel infused with mystery and accentuated with mysticism and fantasy. This book is a brilliant examination of human relationships as well as our often tenuous relationship with nature.
Climate change has drastically altered the terrain of the Earth. Gone are the once fertile farmlands of Kentucky, replaced by a verdant jungle landscape. The city of Leiodare lay nestled under a mountain range spanning a crater left from a comet’s impact. It is one of the largest surviving US cities, though it is still recovering from the aftermath of a recent and terrible pandemic known as the Crumble, believed to have originated from birds. To prevent a recurrence, Leiodare has surrounded itself with an enormous electric fence designed to keep the birds out and its citizens safe.
Anna Armour has a rare and magical talent; the ability to create life from art. Her mother helped hone her skills as a child but before Anna could fully understand her power, her mother is murdered before her eyes. In a blind fit of grief and loneliness she sculpts a companion, a beautiful woman who abandons her the moment she comes to life. Alone, Anna meanders through life eventually making her way to Leiodare where she longs for the woman to return to her.
Rory McClaren is an extremely wealthy hermit who locked himself in the towering Spires when the Crumble came. Sealed off from society, the once carefree socialite has only virtus to keep him company. Eugenio is an anthropologist not satisfied with the status quo; he works with his sister Lucine to discover the truth behind the Crumble. Seife is a caller, a singer whose voice fills the emptiness left in the people of Leiodare in the absence of birdsong.
They are all strangers, but their destinies are intertwined. Each of their actions set in motion a reckoning that could either result in their ultimate demise or bring about redemption for themselves and the city of Leiodare.
The story is told from the points of view of three characters, Anna Armour, Rory McClaren and Dr Eugenio Olievera. They all play integral parts in the story and in the future of Leiodare and its citizens. Anna is searching for love, Rory for redemption, and Eugenio for the truth, and the culmination of each of their quests intertwine to set the city free.
While there are multiple points of view in the book, Anna Armour’s journey is the lengthiest and most emotional. We meet her as a child, share her heartbreak, loneliness and suffering as she makes her way through the world. We also get to share her wonder and apprehension of her unique gift, her desire for the women she meets, and experience the incredible world through her senses. All of this, creates a wonderfully deep connection with her character.
The Writing Style
There is a dreamlike quality to this book. Possibly this due to the way music is interwoven throughout the narrative; subtly, through its lyrical prose and overtly, through the callers and clubs and songs. Or possibly it is due to the striking and vivid descriptions Johnson uses. However achieved, reading this book is an exquisite experience.
The world building is dramatic, gorgeous and garish with a fascinating combination of technological, religious, and fantasy elements. The pacing is steady, not driven so much by action, but rather by instilling in the reader a desire to absorb more of the beauty and depth of the characters and world.
Simply. Astonishing. Worldbuilding. I feel as though I have been to Leiodare and its many neighborhoods, walked the streets, dined, danced, and breathed the air. However, I would say that my favourite aspect of this book is the exploration of the intersection of religion, nature, science and technology, and magic in the world Johnson has created, how each are embraced or rejected by humanity and why.
I wish this book were longer! There is just so much more I need to know about the characters, the world, and its history.
Also, as a content warning, readers should be aware that there is brief discussion of ritualistic cannibalism and consumption of blood. It is brief and not overly graphic.
This is a must read! Johnson has infused this book with so many layers and profound themes. It is a fast read but by no means light. While there may not be an abundance of action, the beauty and depth of the novel compelled me to keep turning the pages and left me with a profound sadness that the journey was over when I reached the final one. I have a terrible book hangover now…but it was totally worth it!
Excerpt from Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson
The holidays started the next day so Anna had to go back to work. The holidays that commemorated the Crumble outbreak and quarantine had no official name. Some called it the Mourning; Anna, like the outsider she was, preferred Death Days. By whatever name, they were holidays and, normally, she would never miss the triple-time pay that came with working on them. It was the only thing anyone at the warehouse knew about her, so she needn’t call attention to herself by not showing up.
Reluctantly, she gathered her things and left the apartment to rejoin the rest of the city.
Leiodare the Lit, they called it. Its founders had given it a new name to divorce it from Middlesboro’s history, or rather its messy transition from Kentucky farmland to jungle and the environmental upheaval that had caused it. It worked. Leiodare shone like an oasis of radiance amongst the dark hills that encircled it – a tiny bowl at the bottom of a jungle mountain range that had captured all the surrounding beauty. Before the short-lived Crumble outbreak and quarantine, travelers and natives alike treasured Leiodare. They spent their extra money and their time to bask in its glow.
Back then, birds roosted in its perches, and monkeys mated in the massive gardens that bisected one side of the city from the other. Their calls had floated through Leiodare, as much a trademark of the city as the twenty-first-century Revival architecture and carnival festivals that filled the streets. A Times journalist had once famously written that if the tobacco farmers and holler people of the past could see what would become of their birthplace, they might have blown the place to smithereens long before climate change transformed it.
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 978-0978986155
- Publisher: Blind Eye Books
- Tenea D. Johnson Online
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