IN A GLOBAL MARKET where nearly every popular medium — from comics and prose to television and film — is saturated with superheroes, what can a writer do to keep his or her head above the tidal wave of superpowered narrative? When you create a cadre of superbeings who fight toe-to-toe with the secret villains who run the world, how do you distinguish them from the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the X-Men, the Teen Titans, the New Mutants, the Justice League of America, or any of the dozens of other collectives of costumed crimefighters?
That’s the challenge faced by Berkeley, California, writer Ayize Jama-Everett in the science fiction/fantasy saga that he began with his 2009 novel The Liminal People. While Robert Mayer’s sloppily satirical Superfolks was a rarity in its day — a novel devoted to superheroes — the genre has in recent years become much more common. Noteworthy examples include Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age, the young adult adventure Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, the shared-world Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin and friends, and Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Like these other authors, Jama-Everett works without the benefits of eye-catching illustrations or state-of-the-art cinematic special effects to provide in prose the same kinds of narrative kicks and emotional resonance that drive the best graphic novels and tentpole entertainments. What sets Jama-Everett’s work apart is its distinctive voice; its diverse, multicultural cast; and its willingness to explore questions of race and the dark legacy of slavery. Jama-Everett upends the cultural assumptions common to many familiar superhero stories.
Jama-Everett’s author bio notes that he hails from Harlem, New York City, and has traveled extensively in Malaysia, Africa, Mexico, and New Hampshire. With Master’s degrees in psychology and divinity, he has worked as a therapist and taught at the high school and college levels. His books seem to reflect his background and interests, raising questions of motive and morality and examining the lingering effects of tragic histories. In this way their outlandish plots feel grounded in hard-earned verisimilitude.
Self-published as a mass market paperback in 2009, The Liminal People was reissued as a trade paperback by Small Beer Press in 2011, whereupon it was greeted by critical acclaim and high interest from fans. Now Jama-Everett has followed his debut with two related novels published within months of each other: The Liminal War, a direct sequel; and The Entropy of Bones, a spin-off of sorts. Over the course of three books, Jama-Everett’s narrative strategy has grown more audacious, his control over style and incident more finely tuned.
The Liminal People opens in Morocco, with its narrator and protagonist Taggert engaged in a drug deal set up by his boss, Nordeen Maximus, a shadowy figure of indeterminate age and unplumbed psychic abilities. Early on, Jama-Everett lets his readers know that Taggert’s world is one in which comic book superheroes are part of the culture. He compares Nordeen to one of the lesser lights in the DC Universe:
In comics there’s this bit character called the Question. He’s got no face, and no powers. He’s kind of like a brokeass Batman without the Robin. I like him because of the concept of a man with no face being called the Question. It’s good in comics. It’s bad in your boss.
Taggert is a “healer,” capable of monitoring or altering his own bodily functions or those of others at a distance. He can mend bones, reweave muscles, change his skin color, wipe away the ravages of age, or cure bacterial diseases. That doesn’t mean, however, that he always uses his powers for benign purposes. As he says,
I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker. With a little focus, I can manipulate my body and others’ on a molecular level. With a lot of focus, I can push organs and whole biological systems around. But if I do it too much, I get tired and hungry. I’ve got skills. What I don’t have is patience.
Get in Taggert’s way, and he may make you piss your pants with a single look.
His drug transaction finished to his satisfaction, Taggert returns home to discover a voice recording from a former lover, Yasmine. Like Taggert, she’s a Liminal, someone who, as he puts it, “dance[s] the line between humans and gods.” She’s a fire starter, a Liminal who has turned her back on her powers and built a normal life as a journalist with a politician husband and a 14-year-old daughter named Tamara.
After obtaining permission from Nordeen, Taggert travels to London, where he discovers that Tamara, who has begun to exhibit telekinetic/telepathic abilities, has gone missing. As he searches for her, he runs afoul of still more people with special powers. These include Prentis, a street kid psychically connected to the animal world; Rajesh, who can blow up matter with his mind; and Alia, a more powerful illusionist who wants to make a slave of Tamara.
Slavery and indenture are themes that run through all three books. Taggert’s own relationship with his boss is more that of a servant to his master than that of a mentee to his mentor. At one point, Nordeen tells Taggert, “I told you from the beginning we all serve someone.” That harsh truth runs throughout these novels, recapitulated in interesting and often heartbreaking ways. No matter how much wealth they possess or what near magical abilities they command, each Liminal is concerned with controlling others and being controlled by someone else. Jama-Everett is skilled at moving beyond simplistic notions of good and evil and presenting the full complexity of master/servant relationships.
Thus while Nordeen might be Taggert’s master, the older man in turn must obey the will of the Alters, the Liminals’ opposite number, nonliving beings that worship entropy and seek to shatter the foundations of reality. Even though he believes the Alters will ultimately destroy the Liminals and all of humanity, Nordeen does their bidding, preferring a relative peace before the ultimate chaos.
The Liminals are different from many superheroes in that they don’t initially set out to protect humanity. They’re not out to save the universe or even just Gotham City. They don’t employ their powers to fight crime or prevent “norms” from hurting themselves. For Taggert, at least, his agenda in The Liminal People is to keep himself safe and to protect the makeshift family he unwittingly builds for himself. Dominance and submission play out in many different ways, but it is Taggert’s struggle to maintain his allegiance to his loved ones in the face of extinction that gives the narrative its urgency. He’s willing to put the interests of others ahead of his own, but family always comes first.
Jama-Everett’s canvas widens dramatically in The Liminal War. The story starts in London, with Taggert now using his powers to fix the ailments of those supplicants rich and well connected enough to afford his services. One of his sessions is interrupted when a panicked Tamara causes an entire neighborhood to freak out with uncontrollable fear. Taggert calms her down and learns that another member of his adopted family has been kidnapped. To get her back, Taggert must learn to trust an assortment of odd allies, including A.C., who possesses the powers of the wind, and Mico, a musician who uses song to warp time and space.
Given sufficient monthly issues, nearly every superhero comic eventually resorts to a time travel story. It happened in Chris Claremont’s X-Men. It happened in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. And it happens to Taggert, Tamara, and crew in The Liminal War, although their method of time hopping gets bonus points for originality. The two forces that allow the time slip are music and the Manna, “a four billion year old sentient tuber fungus” revered as a god by Mico. Employing this method, Tamara and Mico journey back to 1971 and rendezvous with Bob Marley as he weaves his Rastafarian magic with sacramental ganja. Later, they travel to the American South in the deepest part of the Great Depression, encountering legendary blues singer Robert Johnson and the hellhounds on his trail.
Those destinations might seem arbitrary, but Jama-Everett uses them to expand his exploration of racism and indenture across the centuries. If The Liminal People concerned power structures and personal freedom in the abstract, its sequel moves on to history, culture, and real world examples. In order to travel from 1970s England to 1930s Mississippi, Mico must open himself to the suffering experienced by thousands of kidnapped Africans, making a sacrifice of himself that leaves him literally bearing “the Middle Passage’s nameless souls” on his arm. It’s a harrowing scene that lifts The Liminal War beyond its pulp fiction roots.
The Entropy of Bones takes a different tack from the other two books. Chabi, a minor character in The Liminal War, narrates the third book in the series. Overall, The Entropy of Bones is more focused, tighter in its construction, with a smaller cast of characters than its predecessors. It is a novel of initiation, another tale of a novice trained physically and spiritually in awesome mysteries. Think the Wachowski siblings’ Matrix movies. Think Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles comic book series.
When we meet Chabi, she is a teenage girl living on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, and taking martial arts lessons from a mysterious Indian man named Narayana Raj. Disconnected from her alcoholic mother, she is able to speak without opening her mouth (and without, apparently, having anyone remark on that peculiarity). She’s also a fearsome adolescent warrior, able to run incredible distances at blazing speed and capable of fighting and killing fearsome opponents, human and otherwise. When her teacher abandons her, she must decide whether she wants to use her skills in the service of the rich and powerful.
The Entropy of Bones too is concerned with servitude and independence. Chabi is a loner, estranged from her parents and her high school peers, keeping nearly everyone around her at a remove — except for the teacher who ultimately betrays her. Unlike Taggert, she’s a young person who wants love and acceptance and opens herself to friendships that leave her vulnerable. Like the healer, she allows herself to fall under the spell of a boss who acts as another demanding father figure.
Eventually, Chabi sees how the Alters behave toward the individuals who serve them. One Alter in particular, who is known as Poppy, practices a spiteful kind of sadism, sexually enslaving one of Chabi’s friends. By the end of the novel, Chabi is prepared to fight all of the Alters to the death, rather than be bound to them in any way.
The Liminal War and The Entropy of Bones were not published in the order in which they were written. Rather, the release dates were switched based on the assumption that fans would want their fix of new material about Taggert right away. I’m half convinced that the books should be read in the order Jama-Everett wrote them. Some of the details of Chabi’s story might work better up front than in retrospect.
Chabi is nowhere near as worldly as Taggert, so it is illuminating to see the war between the Alters and the Liminals from her perspective. She’s in over her head, but she doesn’t quite know it. Her inability to see the big picture gives The Entropy of Bones a poignancy that is not often found in a genre where the good guys are always expected to win.
Although their merits are many, the novels in Jama-Everett’s series all have their imperfections. Jama-Everett has, for instance, a tendency to push a simile past the snapping point. (“Her breasts are heaving and falling quicker than California tectonic plates.”) What he does especially well, though, is choreograph his action set pieces. They’re fast and punchy, clear in strike and counterstrike. He also makes the reader care about his characters and their tortured histories.
Another quality some readers might find attractive about the books is their brevity. Each runs just over 200 pages, a refreshing alternative to the bloat that afflicts so many books of this sort. Jama-Everett leaves the reader wanting more, rather than exhausted by endless and unnecessary plot complications.
Finally, the Liminal books demonstrate why they are particularly well suited to their medium. As novels, they allow a greater degree of detail than comics or film can provide, taking the reader places that would be hard to capture with a pen or a camera but become accessible through well-turned descriptive prose. Taggert, his allies, and his antagonists would all look great in a graphic novel or a movie, but in the novels they’re given the space to reveal themselves more fully as multilayered characters contending with a complicated world.
The Liminal War ends on a cliffhanger, so there will be at least one further installment in the series. Here’s hoping Jama-Everett can maintain the momentum he’s built with these three unique science fiction thrillers. The genre needs his audacious mix of the familiar and the innovative, as well as his talent for creating superbeings who mirror the diversity and complexity of real life.