Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Since the controversy over The Last Airbender (8% at Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing; that’s what you get for whitewashing and ruining a perfectly good series!), I’ve tried to read more multicultural fantasy–not only to support it, but because it’s refreshing. The traditional European model for fantasy can get stilted after a while, and it’s great to see fantasy authors tap into other cultures to create something different. This is all to say that, while I can’t remember where I picked up the recommendation for Racing the Dark, I was intrigued by the worldbuilding, which seemed to be influenced by both Polynesian and Southeast Asian culture.
Racing the Dark nominally follows the story of Lana, a mandagah jewel diver marked for greater things, as she is forced to leave her island home and then her family to become the protégé of Akua, a mysterious and one-armed witch with plans of her own. But it also follows the fortunes of her parents and her former teacher, Kohaku, as they all must deal with the slow emergence of a terrifying fact–the bound great spirits of the world, death, fire, and water, want to be free, and will stop at nothing to be so.
I quite enjoyed Johnson’s worldbuilding, although it could be a bit shaky in geographical terms. While I don’t think every fantasy novel needs a map, I didn’t quite understand the relationship between the outer islands, where Lana hails, and the colder inner islands–are the inner islands surrounded by the outer islands, or is there a Pole in the middle? In any case, it culturally takes its cues from Southeast Asia and Hawaii, with a few dashes of Japanese and Native American culture, which makes for an accessible but unique culture that varies believably in different cities. Johnson’s system of magic revolves around geas, spells that bind spirits to the magic user–but all geas require a sacrifice, as one-armed Akua points out to her student. Powerful geas bind the great spirits of death, fire, and water (wind having escaped in a horrific disaster half a millennium ago), and these spirits require help in their quest to free themselves. It’s a simple concept that is logically expanded on and connects with religious practices, including the method of choosing kings, or Mo’i–whoever survives an audience with the fire spirit becomes Mo’i. It’s all quite good. My own quibble with the worldbuilding is the fact that black angels, which are quite important, are only introduced as soon as they become important to the story, making it feel as if black angels came out of left field or were made up on the spot. Johnson’s foreshadowing can be weak, which I’ll get into in a bit.
After the almost gross perfection of Brigit in The Midnight Guardian, Lana was a refreshing heroine. Yes, she’s marked for greatness, but she hides her mark with all her strength, trying to avoid the responsibility she’s fated for. She looks the other way when she can’t face the horror of sacrifice, and because of her distaste for being under control, she uses any and all knowledge she can to try and get the upper hand–but she can still be compassionate, she would do anything for her family, and, for most of the novel, she’s just a kid. Akua, her mentor, is wonderfully obscure but also blunt, always keeping her motives to herself. I also liked the story arc for Kohaku, Lana’s classist former teacher–I don’t want to spoil anything about it, but it’s both satisfying and intriguing, as Racing the Dark is the first novel in a trilogy. The rest of the characters are well-done. Johnson gives us occasional passages in the eyes of minor characters, which allows us to see Lana and the events through the eyes of different types of people in this world. While I don’t always see this device done well, Johnson pulls it off.
The pace in Racing the Dark is contemplative at best and slow at worst. While it’s nice to have things develop over time, it can feel a little slow. We join Lana as she joins the rest of the world and fails to discover Akua’s true intentions. There’s no real intensity in the pace until the very end of the novel. Many series, speculative fiction or not, occasionally forget that their installments need to function as novels (hello, The Innocent Mage!). Johnson doesn’t fall into that trap, although I’d hoped for a bit more finality or closure than we get–but it’s still better than some first installments in series. The plot is also done well; all of Lana’s actions are very organic, but she’s also being subtly manipulated by the powers that be.
I was a bit perturbed by the lack of foreshadowing for major plot points and even characters, although Johnson pulls off a marvelous twist towards the end. I’ve already mentioned the black angels, but we later meet Lana’s love interest, whose aunt was mentioned towards the middle of the novel. Much like the black angels, he feels a bit sudden, and it takes a while for the reader to understand the full implications of what he is. There’s a difference between keeping something in the shadows and not telling the reader about it, but, to be fair, these are the only two examples of it. The romances are startlingly sudden; while each relationship has a nominal excuse, it still feels a bit rushed. Still, these are small prices to pay for an interesting world with a good heroine.
Bottom line: Racing the Dark takes its cues from Polynesian and Southeast Asian culture to create an interesting and original world, with a logical system of magic and a nicely complex heroine. While the pace can be a bit slow and foreshadowing for important events or characters can be shaky or nonexistent, it’s still worth a read if you need a break from your average European fantasy.
I rented this book from the public library.