It should be said outright—Redemption in Indigo will not get the attention it deserves.
Small Beer Press, the publishers behind Indigo and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet have made a habit of releasing fascinating, niche-market speculative fiction that is often leagues ahead of other entries in genre. Fans of the press might be right to consider their genre tastes refined and each new release as an elite kind of discovery.
Small Beer’s discovery of Karen Lord via her debut novel is itself an elite find—Lord’s bio boasts a PhD in the sociology of religion, as well as experience teaching physics, teaching soldiers, and working in the Foreign Service. She lives in Barbados. She cuts an impressive figure in a smart leather jacket.
It’s easy to see how she puts this background to use in Redemption in Indigo. Like some of the work of the anthropologically inclined Le Guin, the novel draws on non-Western sources and demographics traditionally marginalized in fantasy (i.e. black women) to spin a tale with striking depth of imagination. In the village of Makhenda, extraordinary cook and beleaguered wife Paama is staying with her family to avoid her husband Ansige, whose titanic lust for a good meal (or twenty good meals in one sitting) has made her life unmanageable. Ansige’s arrival in Makhenda and subsequent hijinks in quest of ungodly amounts of food soon push Paama over the edge, and she makes the decision leave him for good.
Unknown to her, however, the Undying Ones called the djombi have been watching her struggle with interest, and as powerful immortals throughout human history are wont to do, they soon ensnare her in a game of divine politics. The djombi have stolen the power of chaos from one of their number, the beautiful and misanthropic Indigo Lord, and they conspire to hide it from him by giving it to Paama (quite without her permission!) in the form of a decorative stirring stick. While the Indigo Lord hunts for his stolen power, the djombi secretly train Paama in the Chaos Stick’s use (which in one scene involves manipulating Brownian motion and fluid dynamics to make decorative shapes out of the random drippings from a cooking spoon).
Alerted to the hunt, Paama is given some aid by her priestess aunts to help her recognize spirits in disguise, but despite her best efforts, the Indigo Lord finds her. The scene is then set for Stick shaking versus hand waiving, a Merlin-against-Mim style showdown between the virtuous mortal Paama and the baleful indigo djombi.
Except that isn’t where Lord takes the story. Faced with the task of wresting the Stick from Paama’s control, the Indigo Lord instead forces her onto a journey across the globe to show her why power in the hands of the compassionate might be no better than in the hands of the cynical. The story never quite recovers the tension it held up to the moment when he confronts her, but their journey offers some provocative insights into ethics and human nature. In the hands of a lesser author, the folk-tale tone might reduce Paama’s journey with the indigo djombi to bald allegory, but Lord’s story is a bit more complex, and certain elements (particularly the level of detail in her speculative mythos) give it a welcome contemporary feel.
All of which ignores one principle point—the book is laugh-out-loud funny. The opening Ansige chapters are inspired by an old Senegalese story, and Lord uses its folk-tale improbabilities to hilarious effect, such as when, in quest of food, the ever-hungry Ansige accidentally murders a peacock, sets a field on fire, and gets stuck in a mixing bowl. Some of the witty djombi antics are not too far removed from Good Omens. And Lord even touches on some of the lighter absurdity of The Naked Lunch, as in one scene where two bar patrons are too drunk to notice they’ve just had a perfectly pleasant conversation with a giant spider. The humor gets almost wicked in parts, but Lord never seems to regard her characters without compassion. The indigo djombi antagonist gets a chance to show some virtue, and even the woefully gluttonous Ansige achieves a degree of pathos by the book’s end.
In short, Karen Lord’s first novel is unique, warm, funny, and smart, and her speculative imaginings should awaken every fantasy fan’s sense of wonder. It might not make it to a bestseller list, but given time, it might be found on a list of hidden gems—as might whatever Lord writes next.
To buy a copy of Redemption in Indigo, click here.
If you liked this book, check out:
Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock
The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant