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The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun: Review (At Last)

The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun is the first novel in a probable trilogy called The Wrath and the Athenaeum. Erik Allen, a former child star, comes into his divine super powered inheritance and finds himself a soldier in a war to save Earth. Lil, an apprentice librarian, similarly finds herself thrust into the effort to save her world of Zebub. The threat to both worlds is the same. Can the heroes and their allies save both worlds? Or will the incompetence of those in power lead to doom for all?

I really want to like The Root. The novel has a lot going for it. But the novel also has serious flaws that frustrate me to no end. So, in the end, I am disappointed.

The Root is an epic fantasy with a split narrative featuring two different genres. The narrative starring Erik is urban fantasy, and the narrative starring Lil is new weird.

The biggest selling point for the novel is Tilahun’s imagination. Zebub is an amazing construction deeply indebted to the New Weird. That world is deeply strange, monstrous, and awe inspiring. The imagination extends to the less “human” of the descendants of the gods called either Angelics or Antes depending on world. Many of the descriptions of those characters are amazing.

The Root is also noted for the diversity of its characters. Erik is a gay teen among several lgbtq characters, people of color outnumber white characters, and there are about equal representation along gender lines.

Erik’s character initially sold me on the novel. He is a compelling mix of guilt and rage. I love the chapters from his perspective.

Lil is more conventionally a fantasy protagonist but no less compelling than Erik.

Now, I have to get into the negatives.

I love Erik’s character. I want more chapters from his perspective. Hell, I want all the San Francisco chapters from his perspective. Pity, he has to share with practically every other character.

And that is the biggest problem with The Root. The narrative is hopelessly muddled by too many point of view characters that do not add anything to the narrative. I almost bailed on the book sixty or so pages in because of this. And I think that was the character’s only chapter.

The Root would be a stronger novel if Erik and Lil are the only point of view characters. But the epic genre tends to require multiple points of view even if they, in the end, add nothing to the overall story.

Another major problem is Tilahun’s tendency to exposition. Telling trumps showing. The most glaring example is Erik’s awakening his power. The reader is told what happened. Never shown. Even though a lot of authorial soap boxing would be enhanced if he described the event rather than relate it in conversation.

The plots are individually quite good. But the two strands do not cross. I expect they will though in book two.

In the end, I want to love The Root. But I just can’t. The excessive points of view and propensity to exposition wreck the pleasure of the reading. Maybe if I give the book a third go in the new year I will change my opinion. I hope so.



What I Read in May

May has been an interesting month in terms of my reading. I read some really good books. And I read some stinkers. To be honest, I think I am in a mood for more science fiction and fantasy rather than realistic or literary fiction. I am also reading more books for research. And finding good and useful research texts is hit or miss.

Anyway, here is what I read in May:

I already reviewed Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (which I loved) and The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge (which I hated).

The best book I read in May was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. It gets everything I want in a fantasy novel right. Just an awesome book.

I followed Kings of the Wyld up with Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele and Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. Both books are disappointing. I enjoyed Steele’s reboot of Captain Future better than Vandermeer’s phoned in biopunk new weird novel.

I reread Sappho translated by Mary Barnard. I enjoyed the poems, but the don’t have the same impact they once had.

Keeping with Greek mythology, I read Colm Toibin’s House of Names. There is so much wrong with this novel. Especially the lack of consistency in narrative perspective. A worthy competitor with The Night Ocean for worse book I read this month.

I reread two novel by Kawabata Yasunari this month. Thousand Cranes and Master of Go lack the impact that they once had. This is similar to my experience with the poetry of Sappho. Maybe I am turning away from the literature I once loved.

To round out my fiction reading, I attempted The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. I like what I read. But taking a few days off to read other things ruined my desire to return to the book. I will return to it in a few months. Hopefully I will love it on the second attempt.

Before I touch upon the research texts, I want to skim over the graphic novels I read. I was not fond of Titans volume one “The Return of Wally West” (I do like the art though), Apocalypse Wars (a terrible idea in three comics), and Wonder Woman volume two “Year One” (the only part of Rucka’s jettisoning of the New 52 Wonder Woman I like is Nicola Scott’s artwork).

Now, what research books have I tackled?

The World of King Arthur by Christopher Snyder is a disappointing look at Arthurian myth. The First Decadent by James Laver is a disappointing (and likely dated) biography of J.K. Huysmans. The Road from Decadence, a collection of Huysmans’s letters is useful for Huysmans scholars, but not for what I want to write. I did enjoy the very useful Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World by Gary Lachman. Less enjoyable and useful is Janine Chapman’s The Quest for Dion Fortune. A. Norman Jeffares’s W.B. Yeats is an interesting if very dry biography of Yeats. The Etruscans by Raymond Bloch is not exactly what I want from a book on the Etruscans. Maybe a newer study/ history is in order? Another disappointing look at an ancient people is Jean Markale’s The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture. 

I also read Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise. I enjoyed the book. Nichols raises many interesting and cogent concerns about current American culture. But I can’t help but point out that Nichols’s writing is hampered by repetition and the settling of political scores (who else is writing outside of their area of expertise besides Noam Chomsky, hmm?)

Finally, I want to return to novels before I close out what I read in May.

I am in a bit of a gay erotica craze at the moment. To satisfy my craze, I read Brad by Ken Smith. Where do I begin? I have so many issues with this novel that I want to do a detailed review. But would anyone want to read a review about a gay erotic novel?

That is what I read in May. On to June.