MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe narrator, a cryptozoologist, author and newspaper columnist with a fondness for cigarettes, booze and high jinks, is the book’s strength. Her wry, melancholy voice and bottomless curiosity imbue it with wonder and rumination ... The atmosphere of Strange Beasts of China is delightful. Through the narrator’s futile quest to catalog beasts, Yan captures the fluidness of city life, the way urban space defies definition even for people hellbent on making sense of it. There’s no bedrock to Yong’an’s riddles, so the narrator is constantly revising her understanding of the beasts and herself. Human and beast exist in constant flux, clashing, merging and splintering with tectonic regularity ... Regrettably, the book does not build on that friction. By hewing so closely to the taxonomic framework of the bestiary and treating each chapter as a distinct case study, Yan introduces repetitive narrative beats, such as the narrator going to her favorite bar to chase leads or calling her former zoology professor for advice. These repetitions probably wouldn’t stand out in a story collection, but in a novel they are redundant; the narrator seems to reset every chapter. The book’s symmetrical structure also highlights the lack of interactions among the different beast communities, which are hermetically sealed off from one another despite frequent mentions of their ubiquity. Yan invokes the creatures’ strangeness without probing their existence; we are rarely privy to beasts’ perspectives on themselves, their fellow beasts or humanity. Although Yong’an brims with mood and mystique, it lacks culture.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review... takes its structure from the organizing principles of cells and chromosomes: As characters reproduce, perspectives multiply and propagate, too, producing symmetries across generations and families. And, just as cells do over time, the novel’s form begins to break down, mutate ... Williams’s imaginative, intricate tapestries are dazzling, but the story sometimes feels narrow and deterministic. Few of the characters have attachments beyond the principal cast, and those who do downplay them in ways that feel artificial ... is at its best when Williams’s ornate arrangements of life and death feel fragile and unpredictable. He excels at transferring the intensity and action of traumatic events to the doldrums between: phone calls, haircuts, waiting rooms, car rides. In his rich probes of language and intimacy, legacy and inheritance, he slyly shows that reproduction is consequential, but so is everything else.
N. K. Jemisin
PositiveThe NationA work of urban fantasy, the baroque novel uses the city and its endless lore to stage a showdown between its residents and an invading force intent on wiping it off the map. By turns whimsical and creepy, the novel proudly invokes New York’s many histories and peoples, from its beginnings as a home of the Lenape to its present state of relentless gentrification and displacement ... While Jemisin’s tangible love for her city and commitment to showcasing its hidden wonders keep The City We Became personable and charming, that adoration doesn’t provide insight into what New York has to lose, the material and structural costs of its destruction ... What’s deft about Jemisin’s sense of place is that she never reduces a city to a single event or person, always gesturing forward and backward in time ... Jemisin’s ability to nimbly bring spaces to life is tied to her attention to form. Where epics are generally defined by their length and scope, Jemisin emphasizes proportion ... it demonstrates Jemisin’s inner social scientist at work. She refuses to extricate people from their milieus, their potential from the forces that constrain it. Though The City We Became loses punch as the milieu dilutes into \'bullshit,\' it excels when the stakes are intimate and exact.
PositiveThe Nation...Exhalation demonstrates Chiang’s commitment to form as well as ideation. Across the collection he finds shrewd ways to meld perspective and setting, using prayers, museum plaques, and journal entries to channel character voices and outline his peculiar worlds ... In Exhalation, Chiang gives us storytelling as a kind of terraforming: He builds worlds and makes them inhabitable, for their characters, for their readers, and for their ideas. Exhalation follows scientists, con artists, merchants, software designers, and even parrots across time, space, and dimensions. This impressive range and Chiang’s visible respect for his characters’ differences have led him to be characterized by some critics as a humanist, but that term fails to capture the ambition on display here ... He isn’t simply affirming life’s value; he’s probing its specific resonance, exploring how the nature and value of existence—for both the human and the nonhuman—arise through particular experiences, even the specter of death ... Chiang takes technologies and scientific principles and dares us to imagine them as more than just devices to be controlled or problems to be solved. The robots do not want to kill us, and the animals are not (yet) resigned to our stupidity. Ultimately, it is each of us who makes our world.
RavePitchfork\"[Abdurraqib’s] exploration of A Tribe Called Quest uses his love for the group to leverage remarkably sharp insights about the band and himself. Forthright without being solipsistic, the book is a marvel of criticism and self-examination ... In these candid moments, Abdurraqib’s fandom feels like participation rather than possession. He evokes his Tribe so that we may find our own ... While Abdurraqib’s chronicle of Tribe isn’t definitive, it is a compelling angle from which to consider the group’s legacy ... I had my own connections to these songs, but I was beginning to hear A Tribe Called Quest through Abdurraqib’s ears. It felt like love.\
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
PanThe NationAt its best, Ruffin’s satire is an unflinching reminder that the ignored blemishes of today—de facto segregation, colorism, police brutality—could be the cankers of tomorrow ... But in ways that plague its microgenre as a whole, the book spends more time romping around the fun-house than exploring the carnival that props it up ... The narrator’s candidness about his goals and his world give the novel a gonzo intimacy that’s as engrossing as it is repulsive ... the novel lacks a certain dialectical quality; there is a pull but no push. When he says he’s a unicorn, as arrogant as that sounds, there’s no way to verify or disprove the assertion. Whereas writers like Ellison, Beatty, and April Sinclair have stylishly used the idiocy of racism to comically offset its grayscale misery, Ruffin’s jokes are muted and hard to spot. What is parody and what is not is sometimes difficult to parse ... Ruffin’s narrator essentially monologues for the entire book, overshadowing all of his opponents besides those in his head. He’s too loud and too visible ... rarely explores how white supremacy operates as a system—the animus that fuels it, the society that sustains it, the lives and resources it consumes. Like its counterparts, the story relies so heavily on the inherent spectacle of racial transformation that it obscures the forces that conspire to make whiteness desirable ... scratches the surface of systemic racism—the way that injustice ripples through generations—it ends up settling for little more than a neat character portrait.