Notes on Diversity:
Features a large cast of people of color helmed by agentic, powerful women, yay! Portions of the book are set in Jamaica, so it’s not even entirely USA-centric, also yay!
No queer characters. No characters with identified disabilities.
FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Drafnel, the first novel in the Camille and the Bears of Beisa series by Simone Salmon, is a major genre-bender. Equal parts paranormal thriller, romance, sweeping sci-fi novel and folkloric fantasy all wrapped together, Salmon manages to weave them all into an absorbing whole. Drafnel is scheduled for release on August 28, 2015; you can learn more about the book here.
Drafnel is composed of several intersecting narratives strung across different universes and timelines, all connected by specific individuals who persist across time and space1. The anchor narrative is driven by Camille Matahari, a young woman in 21st century New York City fresh out of college with her whole life ahead of her. The book follows her as her otherworldly powers begin to unlock, and as she is hunted by a persistent and complicated evil across time and space. To survive, she draws on a community of people both familiar and unfamiliar to her, including her Indian-born Jamaican-raised grandmother, Catharine, her Afro-Latino boyfriend, Chase DeLeon, and the shifter Beisling Bear clan.
Drafnel is Dune-like in the grandiose sweep of its worldbuilding. The sci-fi universe Salmon creates, Narvina, with its eight ruling clans and ornate power structures was intriguing. It was also refreshing to read a great space opera like this where the people in charge are people of color, and where the universe is a matriarchy.
While anchored by Camille and her narrative, the book functions as a series of linked interludes. The POV switches between Camille, her grandmother, Chase, and others. When the POV switches to people in the far-future (far-past? Extra-dimensional?) world of Narvina, the reader is able to grasp what that universe is like from an insider’s perspective. These interludes are able to fill out the scope and reach of Narvina without an over-reliance on info-dumping. I will say that the lingo of Narvina, which required a glossary I found too late in my reading, confused me. But Salmon’s use of folktales and specific stories to build out the structure of this unfamiliar world, and to link it back to Camille’s story, was a brilliant narrative device.
There were also long sections that explored Camille’s grandmother’s childhood in Jamaica, and her grandmother’s awakening powers. These sections were wonderful—they created an additional counterpoint of paranormal weirdness (Camille experiencing these disruptions in our current time, her grandmother experiencing them in the 1950s in Jamaica) and provided another compelling narrative voice. Honestly, Catherine Matahari, Camille’s grandmother, stole the book for me. I loved her in all her incarnations. She was wonderfully drawn, and her sections held so much fine detail and description that I wanted the whole book to be about her. I felt her voice was stronger than Camille’s, ultimately.
The book is complicated, and thematically messy. It’s a surprisingly quick, short read, which is both good and bad: good, because it’s quick-paced and satisfying, bad because I wish Salmon had taken the time to dig into some of her themes and explore them with more nuance and depth. There was more to mine in this book, I think. There were some characters left unformed and half-developed, including Camille who never quite stands out from the cast of more sharply drawn characters around her. There were some ideas waiting to be clarified in the text that didn’t quite come together. But on the whole, Drafnel is a hugely ambitious book, and deeply felt, and it works.
1The structure and some of the themes of the book reminded me of the movie The Fountain, which I adored. This idea of the same person persisting in different forms across time and space, mostly through the power of deep emotional connection to other people, really connected the two pieces in my mind.
Want posts like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for my newsletter!