Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Smoketown, the debut novel of Tenea D. Johnson, belongs in a rare subset of speculative fiction novels that examine the relationship between art and society. These books include Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After and a number of Samuel R. Delany’s work, most notably Dhalgren. Smoketown, like the aforementioned works, blurs the boundaries between perception, magic and science, and the futuristic/transformed landscape is both a living metaphor and geography.
Anna Armour, an artist, is at the center of the nested narratives that comprise the novel that takes place in a distant, post-climate changed Southern city called Leiodare. A generation ago, the city was overrun with a mysterious epidemic called The Crumble, believed to have been spread by birds. As a result, a force field has been erected around the city that blocks birds from entering the city. Armour moves into the city, awaiting her on-and-off again lover Peru, who lives a nomadic existence as a ‘virtuoso’–a living recorder of experiences for clients.
The cipher-like Peru is also the personal ‘virtuoso’ creator for Rory McClaren, the scion of the wealthy McClaren family, and its sole surviving member of the Crumble. Rory lives sequestered in his penthouse apartment, and has not left it for nearly 25 years, with no real human contact save through Peru’s complex and beautiful ‘virtus’ (virtual reality creations). Rory’s isolation is interrupted by the appearance of Dr. Eugenio Oliveria, a researcher and medical anthropologist at Leiodare’s office of Emergency Management.
Eugenio is also a sometime practitioner of a religion/lifestyle called Mendejano; he is linked by this religion—which focuses on nature and reveres birds as sacred—to his soul sister Lucine, who is more devout. Eugenio is interested in talking to survivors of the Crumble and finds the McClaren family at the center of his research.
Anna is the catalyst for the action that effects the entire city—and she is connected (indirectly, sometimes) to the change that ripples through the character’s lives. The introduction of magic in this mostly science fictional milieu makes perfect emotional sense.
The city of Leiodare is, itself, a character. It is a jungle city filled with many rich subcultures—including the titular Smoketown, a neighborhood of people of color who tend to numerous kilns. There is also an active gang culture—the main gang is called The Starlings.
Johnson weaves together all these strands together with lyrical prose and a thematic eye towards redemption and transformation.
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