For five years the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands have lived with the Ynaa, a race of superadvanced aliens on a research mission they will not fully disclose. They are benevolent in many ways but meet any act of aggression with disproportional wrath. This has led to a strained relationship between the Ynaa and the local Virgin Islanders and a peace that cannot last.
Emotional prose and distinctive characters highlight an incredible story that will touch readers’ hearts and minds ... A compelling tale of invasive occupation and emotional uprising, Turnbull’s debut is complex and enthralling. It’s a must for all libraries, and the writer, who crafts speculative stories with black characters on par with Octavia Butler, is definitely one to watch.
Every character has at least a few good moments, but the book starts to feel like a literary scrapyard toward its end, full of pieces of stories rather than a smooth narrative. The story of the book is less an agile plot than it is a series of shifts in the lives of these characters. Key events occur, but how the characters absorb and react to these events makes the plot feel a little sparse. No matter. Turnbull’s writing is affecting and intelligent, dropping wisdom like cherry bombs ... The Lesson isn’t symmetrical or geometric, but messy, driven by decisions and relationships. That makes it much more human. The trouble with allegories is how circumscribed by purpose they often feel. Nothing that doesn’t fit the allegory can go in the book. The Lesson does not have that problem; its events occur organically, and the book’s nature comes clear only gradually ... In craft, The Lesson is hardly a perfect book. It has false starts (the opening makes it seem like a YA book), it juggles its many characters with less than ideal grace (Patrice, characterized inconsistently, has a convenient, low-stakes pregnancy), and its vague gestures to how the world beyond St. Thomas deals with the Ynaa’s existence are not enough to fully contexualize the event. But it’s a daring and thoughtful book, which is far better than a beautifully crafted snoozer. Moreover, it’s a book that presents racial issues and questions in a genuinely new way, which makes it a book that, I hope, will stand the test of time.
Turnbull’s light touch here is effective: the connection he draws between historical Caribbean slavery and alien occupation is firm and unsparing, but unsentimental. The fevered heroics of alien invasion stories and human resistance can be thrilling; sometimes, though, they read like a sleeper waking from a nightmare and re-litigating the dream, convincing themselves it (colonization, enslavement) wouldn’t happen to them, not that way. Turnbull is more interested in probing the complexities of resistance, what it means to answer violence with violence and what these cycles signify to occupiers and rebels alike ... Turnbull’s honesty here is important: the world we’d like to see, that we think is so obviously a better one, is hard to get to, because it leaves out the need for reckoning, symmetry, satisfaction that drives our sense of justice.