Blessings on Ayize Jama-Everett and his publisher, Small Beer Press, for giving readers the simple gift of a “Previously On” at the start of Heroes of an Unknown World, the long-awaited final book in Jama-Everett’s Liminal People series. My hottest SFF take is that all series books should do this, in consideration of those among us who have been rendered, by stress and Tr*mp and COVID and climate change, incapable of remembering the name of the third character in The X-Files (a show we watch every evening, and Ole What’s-his-face is actually sacrificing a lot to ensure Scully’s recovery from cancer), let alone the events of a single book we read two years ago.
In case you, too, have forgotten, our hero is Taggert, a Liminal whose power allows him to manipulate and alter bodies. He has acquired two daughters along his way: the ferocious Tamara, a telepath, and the quiet but determined Prentis, who can talk to animals. When we left them, in 2015’s The Liminal War, Taggert and Tamara had traveled through time to rescue Prentis from the Alters, a group of perhaps even more superpowered people whose driving cause is entropy. Taggert and his family are successfully reunited, but at a terrible cost: when they return to the present, they discover that it is not the same timeline as the one they left behind in their travels. In this version of the world, the Alters have tightened their control over humankind. This control is so complete that they have convinced 10 per cent of the population to sacrifice themselves—ostensibly to preserve more resources for the remaining 90 per cent, but really to advance the Alters’ ennui and despair agenda, which will eventually collapse the whole world into entropy.
But there are antidotes to entropy, or preventative measures to take against it, and it’s the job of Taggert, Prentis, and everyone who has ever called them a friend to bring those antidotes to bear now. A good chunk of the book is devoted to the timeless genre of getting the band back together, with different groups of Liminals heading up missions to recruit the different powerful allies they’ll need. This section of the book flags a little, not least because it requires the author to reintroduce characters, story arcs, and past traumas very quickly. When Taggert and Samantha are talking about the death of the evil, alt-timeline version of Tamara’s mother, Yasmine, it’s a conversation that should hurt—and does, to an extent—but the impact is muted by the years that have passed since we last had anything to do with Yasmine, way back in The Liminal People (2011). The impact of alternate timelines arises from their ability to shed new light on characters we already know and love (Vampire Willow, anyone?), and some of that power is lost in the shuffle here. That, at least, can be rectified on a reread, which—another hot take incoming—is the better way to enjoy final books in series anyway; and in the meantime Jama-Everett does the yeoman’s work of reminding the reader who everyone is and what they were like in the original timeline.
Still, it’s hard to resist the feeling that we’re on a speed run to collect every team member before the climactic battle. Some of the resulting set pieces work better than others. There’s a real horror to the sequence where they recruit Narayana, an Alter who is on their team because he learned to love the unthinkably powerful Chabi in The Entropy of Bones (2015). Just when they reach Narayana, his small island is attacked by monsters controlled by the Alters—a coincidence of timing that will ensure the team’s doom if a single monster reports back that an organized resistance is forming. To prevent this from happening—to save the world and all its people—Narayana must sink the island, along with any occupants whom the team can’t evacuate in time.
The decision is shocking, and it highlights one of the key themes of the book: we are all imperfect, broken, compromised. The salvation of the world has fallen to Taggert and his team, and they are choosing to answer the call—but neither they nor the reader should be under any illusion that this makes them good guys. They’re not good now, and maybe they never can be. It’s just that they’re all they’ve got. Taggert and Tamara and Prentis are powerful, sure, but the most important thing they are is passionate, in a world that has been systematically and maliciously bleached of passion. They’re not quite fighting for the survival of those they love, although that survival is what they all desperately desire. They know from personal experience that war entails loss. Rather, they are fighting for a world in which the love they feel for each other remains a possibility. They are fighting for a world in which people like them can thrive, even if it means they will lose their lives or their dearest companions along the way.
At times, though, the book falters in its depictions. A character is described as liking “ladyboys,” which another character corrects to “transgenders”; then both people in the conversation laugh at the idea of girls with penises. One of the recruits to the anti-entropy team is a disabled woman who’s described as “proper deform[ed], inside and out” and likened to the mindless monsters the Alters keep sending against our heroes. As a reward for this character collaborating with our guys to defeat the Alters, Taggert “fixes” her disabled body; special attention is paid to the fact that she can now, post-cure, have children. The trope of disabled people being rewarded for good behavior with a cure remains regrettably common, contributing to broad societal narratives that physical disability reflects an internal moral failure; that a disabled body is a flawed and broken body; and that disabled people should change themselves to conform with a society designed for non-disabled people, rather than for society to change by becoming more accessible to people with a wide range of needs. These ill-considered moments of casual dehumanization are very upsetting, and they feel particularly out of a place in a book that places such tremendous thematic importance on the value of every human life.
Still, the centre of this novel is that Black lives matter. What pockets of resistance to the Alters that existed prior to Taggert’s return to the world are guided by Black leaders and located in Black-majority nations. Samantha—who worked for Taggert’s boss, Nordeen, in the original timeline—appears to have to ally herself with the Alters, while actually using her Liminal power to reach into the dreams of people in her orbit, encouraging them, each in their own way, to rebel. Not coincidentally, she and her supporters are based in Ethiopia, which—in the real world—has always been a powerful symbol and a source of inspiration to pan-African philosophy and activism. The esteem in which this book holds Black excellence is typified by the fact that its resistance to entropy flows outward from Ethiopia specifically, and Africa more generally (another major resistance cell comprises Bedouin women who live inside a magical sandstorm in maybe-Morocco).
Indeed (spoilers ahead!), Black and Brown art and excellence turn out to be the key elements in bringing the world’s people back from the brink of apathy. The final battle requires ferocious effort and sacrifice by our protagonist, but none of it would be possible without the exceptional DJing prowess (yes, really) of this world’s version of Mico:
For those born and raised in this world, a world where Robert Johnson was never rediscovered and Bob Marley fell to a U.S. government assassin, where Jimi Hendrix vanished into obscurity between a methed-out Little Richard and a rage-filled Ike Turner. Where DJ Kool Herc was arrested for throwing the block party that started hip-hop, where Chano Pozo wasn’t saved by Santeria and where Miles Davis was taken after that third album, to those born in such a world, what Mico spins isn’t music, it’s salvation.
Stripped of its superheroic trappings, this series has always been a story of fatherhood. When we first met Taggert, he was trying to shed a life as an amoral fuckboy who existed at the beck and call of a sociopathic crime boss. Tamara slammed into his life like a tornado, requiring an abrupt and total overhaul of his priorities—you know, parenthood. Once Tamara and Prentis have had time to recognize the solidity and materiality of Taggert’s love—that he will put his body between them and danger; that he isn’t trying to use them or their powers; that neither of these facts is contingent on some desired performance of daughterhood—they are able to relax into the central father-daughter relationship of the series.
On another end of the parenthood spectrum are the powerful Chabi and Narayana, the Alter who considers her a daughter. Chabi hates Narayana for the abusive training he put her through, which failed in any case to save her from a violent and untimely death. (It’s okay. She’s only mostly dead.) There’s little question of Narayana’s culpability, none of forgiveness. Instead, Jama-Everett asks the reader to sit with the discomfiting ambiguity of relationships in which love sits alongside anger, neither of them canceling out the other, no matter how much simpler things would be if they did. Narayana is under no illusions of his forgivability. He fights, only and always, to give Chabi a chance to live.
By the start of Heroes of an Unknown World, though, Taggert is fighting for something subtly different. He wants his girls to survive, would give his own life without question to ensure that they do. But as the girls have grown, in themselves and in the bonds of family, Taggert must now grapple with the fact of their moral separateness. They are old enough and smart enough to make choices for themselves. They are old enough to decide that there are certain things they hold in higher priority than their own survival. After all this time of holding them close and safe, Taggert has to take the harder step of letting them go. His beautiful, ferocious girls. He has to trust that they can face the world on their own terms.
You know, parenthood.
As we, out here in the real world, head into what promises to be another punishing US presidential election year, there’s a terrible resonance to the possibility that apathy will triumph. The evil is hungry, and petty, and Hydra-headed, and so, so, so rich. At times it feels impossible to hold onto the conviction that it’s worthwhile to try and make a difference, when our puny individual efforts come, time and again, to naught. Heroes of an Unknown World reminds us that conviction—if anything—will carry us through. Despite this book’s flaws, I am profoundly grateful to Ayize Jama-Everett for writing it.