Go to your bookshelf.
Take out all the science fiction and fantasy books that you've read.
Look up each author and then divide the books by "white author" and "non-white author."
Once you have your two piles, you'll probably realizing with a sinking feeling that you have a lot more books by white authors than people of color.
This isn't an attack on you. The publishing industry--like most other industries--are skewed to favor white people. Even as there's a growing interest in characters of color, it's often very difficult for authors of color to break into the industry compared to their white counterparts.
I'm guilty of this, too. One look at my Favorites list will tell anyone that I've been lingering in my own comfort zone for far too long.
In light of this--as well as the recent call to support black business owners and authors--I will be expanding my reading list. As soon as I finish the Diviners series and get my new books in the mail (I wouldn't be surprised if my recent order single-handedly makes Bezos a trillionaire), you will see a spike in this blog of reviews of books by authors of color.
I invite any and all white readers to join me in this challenge of purposefully diversifying our bookshelves. I invite any people of color reading this to join in, as well, though you're probably less likely to need it. More often than not, when I stumble on a "new" author of color, my non-white friends will have known about them for years. Same with LGBTQ+ authors and friends. I'm usually slow to the party, is what I'm trying to say.
Anyway, this post is for people hoping to find a good read by an author of color. Here is a list of six amazing science fiction and fantasy books by authors of color that I've already had the privilege of reading and reviewing. Links lead to more in-depth, spoiler-free reviews. These are all in order from young adult to grimdark adult, so you'll hopefully find something to catch your interest.
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
Dread Nation and Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
Kingston Cycle Trilogy by C. L. Polk
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James
That's that! Comment with your favorite sci-fi and fantasy authors of color so I can check them out, please and thank you. :)
Note: originally, this was a list of seven authors of color and included G. Willow Wilson's The Bird King. Then it was brought to my attention that she's actually white.
Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
Note: while there are no spoilers for Deathless Divide here, there are spoilers for the first book Dread Nation. So if you're interested in Justina Ireland's work but don't want to get spoiled, click on the Dread Nation review here.
A little while ago I reviewed the first book in this series, Dread Nation, which followed Jane and Kate from Miss Preston's zombie-killing school to the wild west racist playground of Summerland, in 1880.
I re-read Dread Nation before getting into the sequel, Deathless Divide, and it gave me whiplash. You would think that Justina Ireland could see into the future: replace "zombies" with "COVID-19," and "Survivalist" with "Trump-supporter," and you've got 2020 in a nutshell. It's a little eerie. But it's a necessary read for any fans of speculative fiction who want to better understand race relations, because Ireland does her research. While there's the obvious fantasy element of zombies that throws American history on a different track, it's still grounded in reality, and there are direct parallels between the heroes' plight and our modern-day racial discrimination.
Deathless Divide picks up right where Ireland left off in Dread Nation: Jane, Kate, and their friends let Summerland get devoured by zombies while they try for the fortified town of Nicodemus. The big problem here is that's where a lot of other Summerland survivors are heading, and you'll recall they're all white supremacists. As soon as Jane arrives she spends the next several chapters in a jail cell for murdering the last book's villains: Sheriff and Pastor Snyder.
Deathless Divide is all about consequences. Not only do Jane and Kate have to wrestle with them, but so does this book's villain: Gideon Carr. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he was one of Jane's allies in Dread Nation, and also helped come up with the ineffective "vaccine." He turns villainous because he doesn't have regard for the consequences of his actions. He's consumed by the goal of finding a cure or effective vaccine for the zombie plague and makes horrible, devastating mistakes that cost Jane dearly.
He has several parallels to Victor Frankenstein: he's sympathetic in that he doesn't mean to be evil, and in fact sees himself as the good guy (re: "it'll all be worth it"). At the same time, I don't feel bad for him in the least because he should've learned his lesson the first time a hundred people died. He's a rich scientist who doesn't care about the trail of bodies he leaves in his wake; the zombies aren't nearly as dangerous as he is.
While Gideon goes full on evil, Jane skirts that line herself. In Dread Nation she was already something of an anti-hero, with all of her lying and not particularly going out of her way to save other people, just herself and her frenemy Kate. But when Gideon triggers a vengeance quest within her in Deathless Divide, she goes a little nuts, turning reckless and vicious. While she never hurts an innocent, she does put a few in direct danger and develops taste for torture.
We also get Kate's point of view. This gets irritating because her chapters, like Jane's, are all first person POV. Dread Nation was told purely through Jane's eyes, which worked beautifully. In Deathless Divide, each chapter alternates: chapter one is Jane, chapter two is Katherine, chapter three is back to Jane, etc, much like the last two books of Tiana Warner's Eriana Kwai Trilogy. And just like that series, it can get confusing as to whose head we're in. As much as I appreciate getting into Katherine's mysterious backstory, there were probably better ways to go about it.
Having said that, Katherine's chapters are just as good as Jane's. We learned already that Katherine is asexual and aromantic, a fact that remains true throughout this sequel--none of that ace character getting "fixed" nonsense. Now we learn that she also has anxiety and fierce loyalty. While Jane's romantic subplot(s) are very light, Ireland goes ham on the Power of Friendship, and I love it.
This is an intense story. A major character from the previous book dies in the first fifty pages. People lose limbs and break hearts. One of the main characters is in very real danger of turning full villain. But it is absolutely worth it.
Deathless Divide is an excellent sequel, tying up all the loose ends from the previous book and building upon the established characters' arcs. We also got to see a lot more worldbuilding in zombie-infested 1880 America: the Wild West, California, and New Orleans. If you like zombies, Westerns, and black characters, you're going to love this.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—derailing the War Between the States and changing the nation forever.
In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.
But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It's a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston's School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.
But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.
And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems
No spoilers (promise)
As a general rule of thumb, I tend to avoid any and all historical fiction for a variety of reasons. One is the same reason I avoid contemporary fiction or anything else that isn't fantasy or sci-fi: it doesn't interest me. I won't say those stories are boring (they're not, and every now and then I find one that's really good even without supernatural elements), but it doesn't spark my interest the way a fantasy or horror story does.
The other reason I avoid historical fiction is because, as someone who has a bachelor's in history and continues to study it, I usually find half a dozen major problems with the historical setting within the first few chapters. The most common crime is that the time period is very idealized. We're seeing it through the thick lens of nostalgia (specifically, white and/or male nostalgia) rather than how it really was. Basically, the writer just doesn't do their research, which is extremely important even if you're doing an alternative history.
Justina Ireland side-steps these problems very neatly. Firstly she brings zombies into the equation, which is a surefire way to get my attention because I love zombie stories. It's rare that a story cannot be improved by adding a bit of the undead into the mix. Secondly, she definitely did her research on the Reconstruction Era. For those who are drawing a blank on what that is, the Reconstruction Era is that bit of time right after the Civil War when the U.S. tried to piece itself back together, fix up the destroyed South, end the slavery thing, and failed horribly on all accounts. Historians disagree on when, exactly, the Reconstruction Era ended--if indeed it's ended at all--and most agree that it could have gone a lot better, especially for the newly freed slaves, many of whom were forced to become indentured servants employed and abused by the very whites who owned them as property a few years ago.
Ireland takes that time period, adds a healthy dose of zombies, and goes to town. While it's definitely a YA novel--with the teenage protagonist, lightning-fast speed, critical view of authority and government--it's a story that readers of almost any age can enjoy and learn from. She's also got the language down perfectly. Several historical fiction authors have their characters and narrator talk either too contemporary or too blandly. Jane McKeene--who is both the main character and the narrator--talks exactly the way someone raised in 1870 Kentucky and educated in 1880 Maryland would talk.
Jane herself is an awesome character. She's a badass fighter, notorious troublemaker, and is one of those stupidly brave people who you respect for Doing The Thing, but at the same time you kind of want to strangle her because you're going to get yourself killed, you idiot! Kind of like Jon Snow, but more interesting.
Playing her foil and partner is Kate, her fellow classmate who is Jane's opposite in every way. Well, not every way, seeing as Kate isn't a horrible racist with dangerous delusions on how a society should overcome the zombies. That position goes to the villain, who we actually don't meet until halfway through the book. I won't go into detail because spoilers, but I will say that he's the perfectly crafted villain, in that I want to beat him over the head several times with a dictionary. He's the guy who just has to die. And I say that as an anti-death penalty advocate and pacifist.
The other characters are well-written, too: enemies, allies, the crush and ex-boyfriend who both cause an absolute minimum of tension, thank God. Actually, there's not much of a romantic subplot here, for which I'm glad. The ex--named Red Jack--is someone that Jane sees only as a mistake, refuses to get back together with despite his repeated advances, and while she still has some lingering feelings for him and gets jealous whenever someone else gives him goo-goo eyes, she ruthlessly squashes them down to concentrate on the task at hand. That is an attitude sorely lacking in many YA protagonists that I deeply appreciate, especially in a zombie story, where the most common mistake an author makes is focusing on the petty drama rather than the very real threat of imminent doom.
(We also find out about three-quarters of the way through the book that Jane is bisexual, or at least fluid and flexible enough to have made out with a pretty girl. Yay, diverse characters!)
My only complaint about this book is that there are a couple of loose ends, namely the fate of one of Jane's friends who goes missing. She spends a good amount of energy looking for him before she's forced to leave, so it's not like Ireland forgot he existed. She just refuses to tell us where he went off to, which is frustrating. Though I think she plans on bringing him back if she ever publishes a sequel, which is a distinct possibility. Watch me not complain about that.
So, yeah. Welcome to the Favorites page, Dread Nation! Please don't eat my brains.
Black characters--or I should say, well-written, non-stereotypical black characters--can be hard to come by in sci-fi and fantasy. Chances are, if the book is written by a white person, almost all of the characters are white, and those that aren’t are minor and two-dimensional. Even the best authors are guilty of this. Does anyone recall seeing any black wizards in Hogwarts?
For those of us well-intentioned white SFF authors, we see this and want to help. But we don’t want to come across as racist by badly writing a black character, so the question is: how do you write black characters?
The good news: it’s pretty easy.
Yes, this is very similar to how you write women characters. Remember: it’s not the person themselves who are different because of something as superficial as skin tone. It’s how other people react to that person’s appearance. That is what shapes the character.
Obviously if you’re writing a historical piece, do your research. Adhere to the rules of slavery, segregation, and whatever other horribly racist mandate we had going on at the time.
And no matter what genre you’re writing, even high fantasy or super futuristic sci-fi where you can create all of society’s rules, governing race, and ethnicity, there are some stereotypes you want to avoid.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!