Ayize Jama-Everett delivers with the latest installment in his sprawling sci-fi saga
Ayize Jama-Everett, author of the audacious Liminals quartet of superhero novels, brings all the elements of its jam-packed plot together in a satisfying final volume, Heroes of an Unknown World, now on sale from Small Beer Press. East Bay author Jama-Everett picks up where he left off in The Liminal War, with this patched-together family of Black and multiethnic superbeings recuperating from the near-ending of the multiverse.
Trained in religion and the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy, Jama-Everett grew up in Harlem. He received degrees from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union and the New College of California. Having taught religion and psychology at Starr King School for the Ministry, he worked as a therapist at the College Preparatory School. He has also worked at Catholic Charities and the Alameda County Juvenile Hall.
Jama-Everett’s experience with teens in crisis informs his fiction, capturing the vulnerability and volatility of adolescence, at a time when it can seem as if the fate of the entire universe is always at stake. His Liminals series uses the tropes of cosmic comic books, cinematic espionage thrillers and feverishly told young-adult sagas to produce one of the most densely packed—and enjoyable—science fiction series of the past 15 years.
The Liminal People was Jama-Everett’s 2012 debut as a novelist, self-published before he connected with Small Beer. It’s a pyrokinetic actioner, featuring protagonist/antihero Taggert, a kind of mutant hit person, eager to save the daughter he never knew he had. Jama-Everett has said that Taggert wasn’t supposed to be likable, but over time he has become the acerbic linchpin of the series.
The Entropy of Bones is the quasi-sequel of The Liminal People—focused on Chabi, a teen Bay Area martial artist testing the strength of her powers in the face of a manipulative and psychotic mentor. It’s set in a weird version of the industrial East Bay, where the disparities in income are even more dramatic than they are today.
The Liminal War extends Taggert’s adventures with the god-like Alters, non-living beings who worship chaos and seek to shatter the foundations of reality. Taggert is a reluctant combatant against the Alters who threaten his extended family with their inscrutable obsessions about hastening entropy.
In Heroes of an Unknown World, Taggert finds himself in a grayer version of reality, where everything is a shade darker, the joy wrung out of the fabric of the universe. To get the mojo back, Taggert reconnects with friends, his found family: Young A.C. has power over the wind, while Prentis can communicate with rats, dogs, pigeons and other animals that live on the streets. His telekinetic and telepathic daughter, Tamara, is capable of causing city-wide panic attacks with her frightening brand of empathy.
With Heroes, all the pieces seem in place for a successful challenge to the Alters’ destructive power. Jama-Everett begins this final volume by reintroducing individual Liminals, emphasizing the importance of the found family.
“(M)y friends are better than yours. They’re family, zene?” says Prentis. The nature and significance of the family created from happenstance is explored throughout Heroes, underscored as Taggert brings various Liminals together to fight off the threats posed by the Alters.
“If we’re going to do this, all of us are going to have to be smarter, sneakier, stronger than ever before,” Taggert says. “No random heroics, Mico. No off-the-radar missions, Tamara. As of now, we’re all together or we’re screwed.”
Perhaps the most unusual member of this metaphysical Justice League of the Universe is Mico L’Ouverture, “his God the underground tuber that grew for a millennium before the first dinosaur egg was hatched.” Mico is a god of connection (and of high-strength weed) and also carries in his body the souls of enslaved people taken on the Middle Passage. Through Mico, some of the Liminals worship Manna, direct from heaven to offer enlightenment.
Taggert himself has formidable healing powers, able to rearrange a person’s internal organs in a few minutes. He’s a killer who heals. And while he is deeply destructive to himself and others, Taggert has survived battles with the near-godly Alters and learned how to be a better father and husband when the fate of billions are on the line. He’s able to banter with his kids, but also engage with them directly. He’s proud of their survival skills, but will do nearly anything to protect them from harm.
Heroes of an Unknown World is filled with other damaged children and their deeply flawed parents. Chabi’s former martial arts teacher, Narayana, abandoned her just at the time she needed him most. Taggert’s brother is a certified psychopath. Like any family, the Liminals squabble, but their sibling rivalries have literally earth-shaking consequences.
Now that the Liminals have another situation to deal with, in Heroes of an Unknown World, something called the Decimation is coming. Ten percent of the world’s population is to die by voluntary suicide. Who would strike such a deal? “The overpopulated, spiritually morosely weakened collection of seven billion souls known as the human race,” A.C. the wind god chimes in.
He goes on: “All their music is for shit, all their religious leaders are for hire. Their sciences are all oriented toward the depletion of more resources and their collective imagination is a static-filled cocoon, where the God of connection used to do its best work. Get it right, people. We are fighting against the entropy in all things.”
Jama-Everett is nothing if not ambitious, but it’s good to see him acknowledge the need for a sense of resolution in Heroes of an Unknown World. Like the earlier Liminal novels, Heroes hops from one time frame or exotic location to another. But this series conclusion mostly focuses on London, Morocco and Indonesia. Jama-Everett has intimate knowledge of those places, and he uses the specificity of his settings to remind his readers that science fiction is a global phenomenon, enjoyed by millions around the world.
While motivations are sometimes obscure, the supporting cast in Heroes traverse various times and locations in the quest to fend off the Alters’ destructiveness. It’s not always easy for readers to keep track, as some names and references might feel slippery to the uninitiated.
More than they like to fight, the Liminals love to talk. Every strategic move needs to be argued and counter-argued. Sometimes the dialogue or the point-of-view gets a little thick with references to songs. And if they’re not spoken, then they’re set to music, and danced to. The climax of this volume comes as Mico performs the dance set to out-do all others.
Jama-Everett’s dance-infused fight scenes are especially inventive, and some may be challenged in keeping track of the combatants and the choreography of their moves. Readers need not over-examine details of such scenes, as those who are willing to just fall into the rhythm of the piece will find its rewards
Inventive, fierce and often brutal, Heroes of a Unknown World keeps all the promises made by the first three books in the series, a superheroic feat in this age of bloated fantasy sagas never brought to completion.