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Ship of Souls, by Zetta Elliott

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Title: Ship of Souls
Author: Zetta Elliott
Publisher: Amazon Publishing
Format: ARC
Year: 2012
Pages: 124
Genre: Fantasy, YA
  Subgenre: Urban Fantasy
Full Disclosure: I received this free through the Amazon Vine program.

Jacket Description
Set in New York City, Ship of Souls features a cast of three African-American teens: D, a math whiz; Hakeem, a Muslim basketball star; and Nyla, a beautiful military brat. When D's mother dies of breast cancer, he is taken in by Mrs. Martin, an elderly white woman. Grateful to have a home, D strives to please his foster mother and succeeds -- until Mercy arrives. Unable to compete with a needy, crack-addicted baby, D disappears into the nearby park and immerses himself in bird watching. At school, he unexpectedly makes friends with Nyla and Hakeem, but just when D thinks he has finally found a way to belong, an unexpected discovery in the park changes everything.

A mysterious bird leads D and his friends on a perilous journey that will take them from Brooklyn to the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, and into the very realm of the dead. Their courage and loyalty are tested every step of the way, but in the end, it is D who must find the strength to fulfill his destiny. Steeped in history and suspense, this inspiring urban fantasy provides an enriching experience that readers will find hard to forget.

My Review
This was a well-intentioned novel with a decently evocative sense of place that I found unfortunately too heavy-handed to be enjoyable to read.

The three main characters are the sort I wish there were more of in fantasy -- non-white characters who are centered in the narrative and who are clearly shaped by their race but not entirely defined by it. Unfortunately, they are never given the room to come to life. We are given the information encapsulated in the jacket description, and one or two offhand statements that begin the process of humanizing those descriptions (D giving up on dreams of college because his foster mother is unlikely to pay for it; Hakeem trying to figure out how to integrate his faith into his day-to-day life; Nyla's alternately manipulative and supportive relationship with her stepmother), but then the entire rest of the novel is spent developing one of the clunkiest love triangles I have ever had the displeasure of reading.

The setting was similarly disappointing -- there was just enough that piqued my interest for me to know that Elliott had a potentially fascinating world built up in her head, but somehow it never quite translated to the page.

But the element I found most cringe-worthy, that made the book nearly unreadable to me even at 124 pages, was the plot itself -- the magical bird with a glorious mission only D can complete. That was handled with all the grace of a Saturday morning superhero cartoon. Here is a representative sample of the bird's dialogue:

"It's a long story, and I don't have the strength to tell it all tonight. I can, however, share some of my history."
"You have endured much for one so young."
"You should rest now. You'll need your strength for the task we must undertake."
"When it is time, all will be revealed."

Just absolutely the worst sort of not at all informative, vaguely mystical claptrap that always seems to come out of the mouths of poorly realized magical mentors in programs aimed at five year olds. The dialogue was so trite, in fact, that I was kind of hoping that the bird would turn out to be evil, manipulating the vulnerable, newly orphaned and unsure D with the things little kids want to hear. But, unfortunately, the bird was played entirely straight.

The second half of the book was a series of action sequences that, while not tremendously thrilling, were always clear about who was doing what and why. But overall, this felt like a novel that would have been stronger with significantly more space for the non-fantastical aspects of character and world-building, and needed an entire rewrite of the fantasy plot to remove the cliched dynamics and dialogue.

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction: ★★
  Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★
  Emotional Satisfaction: ★★
Read this for: The themes
Don't read this for: The plot, the prose
Bechdel Test: Fail
Johnson Test: Pass
Books I was reminded of: The Hallowed Hunt, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Comments

comrade_cat
Apr. 25th, 2013 06:44 pm (UTC)
Yeah! She's written one earlier book, and I just haven't got around to buying it, although I've marked it in case I ever want to. I'm going to keep watching and see what she writes next.

I mean, if nothing else, it's good to have writers with cool names. Zetta. Z-names are awesome and all science-fictiony. :)
phoenixreads
Apr. 25th, 2013 07:37 pm (UTC)
LOL, speaking of Z names, have you read any Zenna Henderson? I kept mixing their names up while I was reading this. . . :)
comrade_cat
Apr. 26th, 2013 02:27 pm (UTC)
LOL. Yes, I read my mom's Zenna Henderson books when I was a kid and bought the NESFA Press collected 'People' stories when I saw it a few years ago. She writes in a recognizably older style but I like them. Good on female characters, but I don't think there's any minorities ever. There's a Henderson story I really like about human/alien communication which I think I remember is called 'Subcommittee'. A few years back I read something saying a number of feminists had disliked it in the 70s but the reviewer feels it was misunderstood because the heroine is a housewife and not a tomboy. My impression of the story was that it was anti-establishment - the military leaders and politicians (who somewhat or not at all coincidentally are all male) can't come to an understanding with the aliens and can't help fighting space wars, but the military wife, who gets left out of all that and is bored without a meaningful role allotted to her, finds out her kid has been sneaking into the aliens' family compound to play with the only other kids around, and she starts to learn about their culture and eventually interrupts the negotiations to prevent further war.

There's some references to Christianity, mainly in the People stories, but it's not supersaturated like Madeleine L'Engle. It's mostly bible quotes and believers who shelter aliens.

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