Meeting yourself in media is no guarantee that the mirror will be kind or wanted. Instead, it’s often a jagged glass you catch yourself in before it catches you. And even when you know it’s coming, the blood’s still warm and sharp. What of me, of us, was I to witness in The Prophets, the debut novel of Robert Jones Jr., set on an antebellum plantation in Mississippi? ... What I found was an often lyrical and rebellious love story embedded within a tender call-out to Black readers, reaching across time and form to shake something old, mighty in the blood ... One of the blessings of The Prophets is its long memory. Jones uses the voices from the prologue to speak across time, to character and reader alike. These short, lyric-driven chapters struck me as instructive and redemptive attempts at healing historical wounds, tracing a map back to the possibility of our native, queer, warrior Black selves. These voices are Black collective knowledge given shape, the oral tradition speaking in your face and setting you right ... What a fiery kindness [...] this book. A book I entered hesitantly, cautiously, I exited anew — something in me unloosed, running. May this book cast its spell on all of us, restore to us some memory of our most warrior and softest selves.
... an outstanding novel, delivering tender, close-up intimacy, but also a great sweep of history. The novel names chapters after books of the Bible, but what really frames it are poetic sections written in the mysterious, eternal voices of seven ancestors, speaking out from the darkness ... necessarily – not an easy read. Jones’s writing style is lyrical, but he doesn’t shy away from the gut-churning horrors of slavery. He writes that The Prophets is perhaps more 'a witnessing' than a book. It certainly asks that the reader bear witness to things they might rather turn away from – but it is a fine piece of fiction, too ... Jones has a knack for a proverb-like turn of phrase and his descriptions have a rich, distinctive vividness ... The same layered detailing is applied to the characters’ emotional and spiritual lives – memories and magic, visions and voices thicken their experiences, and make his storytelling ripe and heady ... At times, this can be overdone. There are too many convoluted metaphors tangled in their own imagery. Its lustrousness is his writing’s great strength, but there are still places where less would be more ... Jones is also ambitious in the scope of his storytelling – and he delivers a lavish polyphony of conflicting fears and desires, slipping between the perspectives of a large cast of characters. Different instances of same-sex love thread throughout The Prophets, but it is the relationship between Samuel and Isaiah that gives the book its heartbeat, and a little softness amid all the hardship ... There are no easy platitudes about how love triumphs over suffering here, however; suffering suffuses every page. Even in moments of sweetness, there’s also a glowering, looming dread. What is remarkable, Jones suggests, is that humans do still love, even when the most terrifying threats hang over them. Even when knowing their oppressors will never allow them a happy ending.
... an engrossing and magically written debut novel ... packed with otherworldly and supremely artful storytelling, and readers will surely get lost in a radiant romance. But most important, Jones adds to the growing body of literature that reimagines slavery ... and to queer theory, in which Jones’ predecessor James Baldwin shed light on, disrupted and intersected with race.
The Prophets, Jones’ debut novel, is a marvel, as much an extraordinary queer love story as a devastating and inimitable portrayal of the agony endured by slaves in the antebellum South. Jones’ stunning storytelling crafts deep and powerful portraits of not only Samuel and Isaiah, but also the many others at the plantation. Alternating between perspectives, each chapter is its own work of art, delving deep into each character’s heart and mind and creating a rhythmic tapestry of profound love and unbearable pain. The Prophets vividly depicts the viciousness of slavery while simultaneously allowing space for the love between Samuel and Isaiah. The Prophets is a novel, but feels almost like poetry, with every word holding a weight and power that will continue to astound those who lose themselves in its pages.
... feels like it might be a classic one day ... The novel slips into numerous, divergent perspectives that complexify themes of queerness and race ... Readers are carried deep into the minds of characters through the skillful use of free indirect discourse ... The novel is less convincing and grounded when it leaves the plantation to tell of King Akusa and the slave ship ... The love story between Samuel and Isaiah steals the show. The fine delineations between their characters produce an ache of recognition ... It is attentive to tenderness, but the novel lays bare the vicious power dynamics of slave plantations ... Certain chapters are gut-wrenching and excruciating, but memorable characterization and an undeniable passion animate the novel as a whole ... the hectic violence of the last quarter feels like an HBO prestige drama ... illuminates Black experience by using effortless and artful entry into multiple consciousnesses, biblical allusion and supernatural elements as Morrison does. Its messages feel more overtly stated than Morrison’s, but the novelistic techniques are similar. And Jones’ style works like Morrison’s, too. It combines slangy colloquialisms, bold images and complicated metaphors to stunning effect ... The text is highly conscious of itself as a descendant, both in its themes and its allusions ... An ambitious debut.
Set in the cruel landscape of the US antebellum South, The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr’s debut novel, explores the tender, often tense, romantic union between two young Black men in a world where matters of the heart, like everything else, are dangerous ... In a sense, The Prophets is Jones’s refusal to leave the bodies where they have lain for so long. Offered no detail to anchor the story to a specific moment, the reader is required to remember that living, loving Black queer bodies, all but airbrushed from accounts of African American history, existed at every point across slavery’s longue durée ... By reminding us of the grim foundations of a nation, the legacies of which are still playing out today, The Prophets serves up a timely antidote to what Randall Robinson calls 'the memory-emptying salve of contemporaneousness'.
... a grand achievement that pits love against cruelty and spares no detail in its brutal telling of the American past ... sets a tender queer romance on a harrowing plantation stage, tracking the action in lyrical, sensual detail ... Jones’ exacting depiction of slavery makes for, at times, excruciating reading — his focus on abuse is unyielding. Yet his prose feels powered by a softer emotional intensity ... while The Prophets’ dreamy realism recalls the work of Toni Morrison and Esi Edugyan, its penetrating focus on social dynamics stands out more singularly. Known as the founder of the 'Son of Baldwin' social justice blog, Jones does its namesake quite proud with this novel — a Black story and a gay story, certainly, but one that reaches far and wide in its interrogation of trauma, connection, and coexistence.
Jones Jr., whose prose is filled with lush descriptions, emotional landscapes, and bold juxtapositions, adds to this unraveling ... The place Robert Jones Jr. goes is within. Fortunately for him, there is fiction, and fortunately for us, Robert Jones Jr. is a novelist. Fiction does not need to be historically accurate, rather, it needs to resonate emotionally with the reader. Jones skillfully brings us to a deep place of imagining and uncovers a discarded memory of two young men in love that transcends time. And Jones uses every ounce of his craft to telegraph the hope of the imagined and the depth of the loss ... At times the narrative voice is traditional rich, deep, gorgeous, descriptive, familiar ... Jones gives us insights and projections of the present into the lives of the enslaved ... Jones builds depths of consciousness for today’s readers to learn from and pursue. When the author looks to his own heart to find the details of his characters’ lives, he relies on a code derived from somewhat modern situations ... This novel is sophisticatedly constructed; it offers deep introspections and projections onto the screen of the modern world ... Jones builds his characters’ sexual and emotional tropes through identity and moral concepts from our own time, which makes the book easier to read. However, there were places at which I wondered what exactly was being said ... Jones also embeds self-concepts about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and monogamy that help with story-telling and character motivation but may be too contemporarily defined ... a bold leap forward that will make new literature possible in its wake. We cannot wait another thirteen years to find out what else this young writer has to offer. My wish is that Jones creates work set in our contemporary world, so that we can draw the connections and juxtapositions between the present and the future his writing will undoubtedly help create.
Each of Empty’s occupants is bestowed with empathy, depth and care by Jones and particularly notable are the female characters who are as complexly drawn as the men at the heart of the story ... Excruciatingly detailed and ambiguously lyrical, this is a novel tackling big ideas: the nature of love, the body without agency, religion without justice. The prose is so poetic that when actual poetry is introduced later in the book, it feels somewhat futile and unnecessary ... shades in this history that has been erased and whitewashed in America. This is historical fiction that feels essential, like a prayer to the past.
With this epic novel, Jones, who is known for his blogging and Twitter presence as Son of Baldwin, marks his entry into the literary arena ... Even in the face of incredible oppression, this book reminds us, enslaved people loved fiercely, adorned themselves and dreamed freely. The greatest gift of this novel is its efforts to render emotional interiority to enslaved people who are too often depicted either as vessels for sadistic violence or as noble, superhuman warriors for liberation ... Jones depicts Samuel and Isaiah’s romance with beauty and tenderness ... Jones’s writing is at its best when it tackles human-level interactions ... There are other passages where the prose feels clunky and effortful, and some readers may feel that the author drops the proverbial stitch in the delicate work of storytelling in favor of addressing historical, social and political issues. The novel may also have benefited from more judicious editing to craft a more captivating and coherent plot. Perhaps this narrative dissonance is indicative of Jones’s attempt at experimentation. It may also reflect the nagging lack of emotional and narrative closure that is emblematic of Black experience in the Americas ... Jones’s debut novel is an important contribution to American letters, Black queer studies and the present moment’s profound reckoning with the legacy of America’s racialized violence.
The Prophets chronicles much cruelty and misery and violence, as is inevitable in a book about slavery. But it’s not really a pessimistic book. Rather, the novel itself functions as an act of love and resistance, by expressing solidarity with those who love despite sanctions and oppression. Patriarchy and white supremacy insist on rigid roles for Black and white, male and female. The Prophets imagines a different past, and a different future.
It is not hyperbole to say that The Prophets evokes the best of Toni Morrison, while being its own distinct and virtuosic work. It is hard to believe this is a debut: where it falters, it does so in the way of ambitious novels – in a bid to innovate ... These two characters move with clarity and lyricism on the page, and their love is elevated to a powerful symbol that not only illuminates the workings of slavery, but forces others into action, unveiling deadly secrets, desires and follies ... The novel boasts an impressive cast of characters ... At the heart of the narrative is a tremendous generosity of spirit; each character, slave and enslaver, 'half-caste' and overseer, is richly evoked, rendering the complexity of their desires and deprivations ... a novel wedded to its period but also of our times, exploring the pressing questions that have plagued America since its founding. It manages to be many things at once, stirring both the heart and the intellect in an exploration of human desire and depravity. A trenchant study of character, it is refreshing in its portrayal of the daily negotiations of humanity under slavery, practised by both the enslaved and the enslavers. It is an ode to an enduring love between two black boys ... Black queer love is at its most radical here. It represents a non-utilitarian love, a love that resists debasement. It delights and rages. Through it, the human demands to be seen. It becomes, in this magnificent novel, synonymous with freedom.
... remarkable ... accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation ... One of the most outstanding things about this novel is its artistry, both in its language and its use of multiple perspectives. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while also being brutally unsparing ... Jones grounds his story in history while making it remarkably relevant to life today ... observations about the intersection of race and gender within this brutal system will sound familiar to contemporary readers ... These disparate elements of history, myth making, social observation, criticism and storytelling don’t always fit together as well as the author may have intended. However, what is most notable about The Prophets is that, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Jones gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling, drawn with insight and great skill. Though this is his first book, Jones is already a master stylist, writing gorgeous, lyrical and readable prose about some of the ugliest things that human beings feel and do to one another. Sometimes the prose reads like scripture. At other times, it’s poetry ... This is a beautifully wrought, exceptionally accomplished queer love story about two men finding extraordinary connection in the most hostile and difficult of circumstances. This debut will be savored and remembered.
... powerful ... Robert Jones Jr. depicts in exquisite, often excruciating detail the social ruination that slavery brought to the antebellum South ... Jones employs mellifluous prose to tell a story that seems almost beyond words ... Jones' undertaking has a high degree of difficulty. He writes about same-sex love between enslaved people, attractions that undoubtedly existed but have so far been little explored by historians or fiction writers. It requires great deftness to place a gay couple at the center of a story set in a time when the very words for their relationship had not yet been coined ... Wisely, Jones takes a discursive approach, lacing his main story with chapters inspired by the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) or fueled by incantatory tales from pre-colonial Africa. Some of these side excursions work better than others. There will be readers who find them floaty and abstract, as I did at first. But allow them to cast their spell. Together they bring historical sweep, magic and leavening flights of lyricism to the blood, sweat and tears of an earthbound world ... Jones brings enormous depth of feeling and insight to the novel's characters, his women in particular. Burnished by their suffering, the enslaved women of Empty form a circle of near mythic power and resolve ... [a] marvelously rendered climax, violent as a Tarantino film and twice as heart-rending ... Labeling The Prophets a 'gay slave story' fails to fully describe its ambition and imaginative richness. Jones' astounding achievement is to open a world where love somehow dares to speak its name alongside our greatest national shame.
This debut novel is already having a profound impact, with Jones’s writing here being compared to Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, putting him firmly in an exalted group of iconic Black writers. The Prophets is about the relationship between two Black men enslaved on a plantation in the Deep South ... this book is not just about the relationship between Samuel and Isaiah; it’s about slavery, it’s about relationships, about that entire period in the Antebellum South ... Jones’s voice is so compelling ... once you pick it up, you’ll be drawn in by the voices on the page.
Although The Prophets is his debut novel, Robert Jones Jr. is no stranger to critical thinking in craft, criticism and analysis. Jones, and his stunner of a novel, embody what can only be called art ... a cornucopia of brilliant, beautiful sentences. The writing in The Prophets calls to mind Toni Morrison’s famous quote, 'I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central … and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.' The novel shifts and subverts the most common narratives of America’s foundational practice of enslavement and exploitation ... In Jones’ deft hands, the pages of The Prophets seem to radiate with its warmth ... Jones’ prose plays exquisitely with the notions of light and dark, exploding the false binary of these words, making light into dark and dark into light ... The Prophets is an astounding book, at once potent and universe-level expansive, a sky unto itself. With it — and with his work at Son of Baldwin — Jones establishes himself as a writer, thinker and creative force to watch.
... striking ... their private conversations (and arguments) over timeless questions about agency, freedom and survival resonate even with the present moment ... Jones sets the stage for a startling climax, though readers will wonder, given the historical period, if any other outcome were possible for two young slaves in love ... The overriding message of The Prophets is difficult to pin down if it’s not the transparent one: that Black queer love is not meant to thrive within the confines of Western paradigms ... In the end, it’s not the lessons that will endure but the exceptional storytelling — the powerful experience of reading this novel. There is no minor character in The Prophets, which delivers a dazzling gallery of unforgettable portraits ... by highlighting lives over plantation life—the humanity of the slaves over the inhumanity of slavery—the narrative remains centered on a Blackness with an imagination that doesn’t need whiteness in order to exist, breathe or even be free.
... Jones, Jr. delivers a tour-de-force of a debut, summoning Baldwin and Morrison to craft a spectacular, shattering, singular novel. This is an intimate, epic, polyphonic evocation of Black queer love as a nurturing, unnamed power within the ceaseless torment that was a plantation. Jones lays bare the white-colonizer constructs of homophobia and cissexism, the devouring, ongoing choice of cruelty that was slavery, which continues to manifest its deep rotting roots in the foundations of this country. Above all, he devotes the heart of his novel to the glory of Black queer love ... Jones underscores the necessity not only of memory, but of restoration. Of bringing to light the love and courage that have been deliberately scourged from history, because the villains of this story are the founders of this country. Because it never should have taken the courage it did to love like this. Because these love stories should have existed clean of tragedy. But they did not, and they deserve a reckoning. Queer Black people have always existed, and the systemic injustice they face today is an unchecked extension of that colonizer abduction. Jones explores clearly how whiteness stole, brutalized, marginalized and interrupted Black life and love. He evokes how whiteness corrupted queerness into perversity and sin, even when white people themselves have always been queer too. Jones explores how white entitlement couples with white insecurity and manifests through violence when it comes to Black bodies. This includes just as equally white women and queer white men ... nearly impossible to review in a few words. And as a non-Black reader, I encourage you to seek out coverage of the book from Black voices. Entire courses can be taught on it, and I hope they will be. It is devastating, harrowing and true. Lyric, prescient and profound, it is sure to be one of the most beloved novels of the year. At its core is a truth, and a reckoning: Black queer love as freedom, as future, as hope.
Jones’s rich cast of characters are in large part carefully drawn and feel real. Each person’s survival strategy is explored; appalling, selfish acts occur, but we know the past experiences, internal justifications and external extreme pressures that have led to them. There’s often compassion for them, without an attempt to condone their behaviour...Jones plants us into the heart of their desperate world ... Being so immersed, it is a shame when we leave them, but Jones is keen to think about being black and gay in a wider historical sweep (as a black gay man, he says, the subject has been erased from the history books and popular memory)...feels rather bolted on ... Jones also reaches hard for poeticism, hence the comparisons to Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. But it is not always successful; his meanderingly overblown passages and sidesteps into philosophising slow the pace. Yet there are stabs of real beauty in his descriptions, a sense of building tragedy that draws you in, and characters you want to live with for a good while after you’ve turned the last page.
No painting could capture the nuances of Jones’ descriptions of women’s roles on the plantation ... Clearly, Jones sees The Prophets as part of the literary tradition of the African diaspora, a corrective to the grotesqueries of Gone with the Wind and the sentimental heroism of Roots. Like Colson Whitehead and Yaa Gyasi, Robert Jones Jr. proves that the slave narrative, far from being empty, remains a vast and fertile territory.
This is an intimate story told on an epic scale. Jones has made clear his inspiration from authors Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and the echoes in his style is clear, without feeling derivative. Morrison’s influence in particular in clear in the poetry of his writing, in the passion and complexity of his female characters ... In some cases the writing can be slightly overwrought and bringing attention to itself, but this is only rarely ... As with any book of multiple viewpoints, some characters are more engrossing than others, but the complexities of the women in the story were particularly well written, and the inclusion of a lesbian character offered further depth ... Overall, the lasting impression is one that is suitably biblical; the chapters themselves named 'Leviticus,' or 'The Revelation of Judas.' And yet it is also a book with a modern gaze looking back ... a confident debut, invaluable for the lost stories that it finally brings to the centre.
Readers should be aware that Jones’s writing, while rich with feeling and metaphor, is unflinching at cataloguing the dehumanising effects of slavery. Jones has described the writing of his novel as an act of witnessing, and no matter what your knowledge of this era is, witnessing the reality of slavery through fiction – an empathetic medium – is by necessity hard ... However, Jones also finds power in the small details. Every act of tenderness and care, every decision people choose for themselves is magnified. And there are moments of beauty and defiance in the novel where I felt fiercely elated. The Prophets feels like Jones’s attempt to reach across history, to create a link in a narrative of love and resistance led by Black queer people and Black women. This is an ever-shifting, polyphonic epic that leaves you shaking with rage, love and a desire for justice and freedom. It is an astonishing achievement that lives up to the enormity of its subject matter.
In the Bible, Isaiah and Samuel are prophets, men considered to be proclaimers of the will of God. In Robert Jones Jr.’s bewitching literary debut The Prophets, these names take on a new significance ... The novel, with its biblical gravitas (most chapter titles and character names stem from this source), gets off to a slow start, but it does have its intrigues. A third of the way through, Jones gives readers reasons to keep turning the page ... Jones’ strength lies in his ability to build interior worlds so imaginative and lush that it would be dreamy if it weren’t such a nightmare for the enslaved people tethered to it ... Readers come to care about the characters, which means they cannot look away from the daily violence and humiliation the slaves receive ... By making real a type of literary imagining that historical fiction often leaves out or at best relegates to the margins, even with its missteps, Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets is an important new work and an integral addition to this period’s literary canon ...
This first novel brims with so much confidence and artful flourish that it’s hard to believe it’s Jones’s first book ... Jones’s expertly drawn characters have depth and purpose, and the writing is beautiful despite the subject matter. A work that will resonate with those moved by Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad; highly recommended and especially encouraged for collections with an LGBTQ focus.
The most horrific tales often inspire the most exquisite language. How else to explain The Prophets, a first novel of slavery’s brutality, racism, misogyny, and homophobia recounted in prose of limpid beauty? ... Jones conveys powerful truths with well-chosen words in spare prose ... A masterfully told story that will haunt readers from beginning to end.
... powerful and beautiful ... With astonishingly real details, Jones creates a convincing picture of slave life ... Jones’s women are all sharply delineated ... What is unprecedented in this novel is its presentation of the two gay male slaves, each endowed with his own personality, which never merges with a stereotype ... The lyricism of The Prophets will recall the prose of James Baldwin ... If my comparisons seem excessive, they are rivaled only by Jones’s own pages and pages of acknowledgments. It seems it takes a village to make a masterpiece.
... ambitious ... vividly rendered characters ... Jones spins a sprawling story of jealousy and passion that foregrounds Black queerness, asserting that queerness has always been part of the Black experience—not just in the slave past, but the African one as well. The novel stretches itself to the point of disbelief when Jones dips his toe into that African past, and there are too many balls in the air for the details of life on Empty to cohere into a satisfying plot. For all its faults, though, this is an inspired and important debut ... An ambitious, imaginative, and important tale of Black queerness through history.