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.