Redemption in Indigo is the debut novel from Barbadian writer Karen Lord (I did have to Google how to refer to someone from Barbados). It has won several literary awards that are unfamiliar to me, including the Crawford Award for best fantasy novel by a new writer. Redemption in Indigo was also chosen as one of Amazon’s Top 10 science fiction and fantasy books of 2010 and has been nominated for the Locus Award.
I feel woefully unqualified to review this book, but …
I was (and honestly remain) completely ignorant of the folkloric tradition in which Lord is writing, so I feel utterly unable to comment on Redemption in Indigo’s place in that tradition. Nor will I comment on the tale’s advertised African, specifically Senegalese, flavor because I am admittedly the whitest man alive. I also know next to nothing about the author. I chose to read the book on the strength of numerous recommendations. I came in cold, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—high expectations but zero preconceptions.
The story begins as the simple tale of Paama who is trying to escape her buffoonish husband, Ansige. Ansige’s foolishness derives from his absolutely insatiable appetite. He goes to bewildering lengths in order to remain well-fed, ironically driving Paama away in spite of her love of cooking. The scale of the story escalates as Paama’s journey brings her into contact with the djombi, spirits of a sort, who entrust her with the power of chaos in the form of a stirring stick. There is another force who seeks the rod, the indigo djombi, who has become detached from humankind and confronts Paama with the realities of human nature and the responsibilities of great power.
Sometimes people say ‘interesting’ or ‘different’ when they mean ‘bad’
Redemption in Indigo is not the sort of book I typically read. I knew I was in for something different from the usual fantasy fare the moment I picked up the book without straining any muscles. There are certainly fantastic elements, such as the self-conscious fairy tale beginning “Once upon a time …” and Paama’s interaction with spirits, but the content and style are unique in my limited experience. I might step out on a limb and describe Redemption in Indigo as a mashup of fantasy, folk legend, and science-fiction. Far from being put off by Lord’s new (yet somehow traditional) approach, I found it intriguing.
Everything old is new again
Lord’s storytelling fits nicely in the oral tradition. The narrator’s voice recreates the intimate experience of sitting around a campfire listening to a tale filled with anecdote, brief narratorial intrusion, opinion, and sentiment. Thus an already humorous and enchanting tale becomes even more charming. There is a mischievous joy in Lord’s writing, evident in chapter titles such as “Ansige eats lamb and murders a peacock.” Yet there is distinct warmth, particularly played out in the character of Paama, who strives to protect Ansige even in her immense exasperation.
The story is tightly paced, which many fantasy readers may find refreshing. Redemption in Indigo will probably be the shortest novel I read this year. The narrator’s sense of humor also serves to keep matters brisk and entertaining even as deeper, difficult issues are explored; however, the levity didn’t always work for me.
Why should you read this book?
Fantasy readers will enjoy a delightful and unique reading experience which they will find brisk if nothing else. To put it bluntly, like myself many will benefit from expanding their horizons beyond doorstop fantasy written by white males.