Racing the Dark

This week I zipped through a novel by Alaya Dawn Johnson called Racing the Dark. It's book one in the Spirit Binders series and is about a world that has been somewhat tamed for hundreds of years, but is about to go undergo substantial, terrifying changes. The protagonist, Lana, is about to go through a ritual to mark her transition out of girlhood. She is a diver in a culture that relies on the sea for food and commodities for sale and trade. Her immediate goal is to dive long enough to find a special fish and harvest a jewel from its mouth. Lana has only been able to sustain her dive for a short time and will need to stay under the water for a significantly longer period to complete her rite of passage.

Lana's dive is successful and unusual. She returns with something that would direct her life in a direction that frightens her so she pretends everything is normal. But soon after she comes of age the planet starts to change. The outer islands where she lives are flooding, the fresh water is turning salty, and she and her family are forced to move to a place that is very different from what she knows. Instead of being close to and attuned with water, they head for a big city that is tied into fire, with a big volcano lurking nearby. Lana's latent power attracts the attention of a witch, who waits until Lana and her mother are in desperate straits and then strikes, finagling them into a dangerous bargain.

Racing the Dark also follows several other characters, who all seem very different but have one thing in common. They are all connected to an element in some way; either death, wind, fire or water. The spirits of most of these elements are bound, making them weak and keeping them under control. The storms that drove Lana's family from their island are only one symptom of the bindings loosening. If they fail completely all hell will break loose.

Ms. Johnson has crafted a universe with a complex interaction between man and nature. Her characters are appealing, perhaps especially because they are conflicted and a complicated mix of good and bad intentions. I've seen complaints that the story drags, gets mired while Lana is waiting or learning, but the pacing seemed fine to me. I am not a fan of the prologue, which seems forced and stiff. (Lots of agents skip prologues, so maybe that's the best way to approach it.) The writing is somewhat uneven, with some parts sinking below the quality of the rest of the writing, but not enough to spoil the book. While Racing the Dark is technically YA, Lana is an adult through quite a bit of the story and there are difficult issues such as forced prostitution, which I find hard to read even at my advanced age. If you, or your intended reader, are easily triggered you might want to skip this one.

You can read the first three chapters here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a short story from Strange Horizons by Stephen Woodworth called Transubstantiation. As you can no doubt tell from the title, it's got strong religious overtones, but it's not your ordinary Christian tale. Marcus is a man haunted by a horrifying dream of being the only being left alive after the rest of the universe has burned itself out. He seems to be obsessed with doing good works, rushing around town donating blood as often as possible, which is more often than would be healthy for an entire family of people. This story left me me surprisingly creeped out.