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Fantastic read. The story takes you quietly until you inhabit it, as seemlesly as the Ynaa arrival. There is a rythm, a music to Turnbull's words that carry you right besides the caracters. The Sci-fi concepts are fresh and they plant seeds of reflection that remains after reading. The author is now on my must read list.
It's hard to believe that THE LESSON is Cadwell Turnbull's debut novel. The book is so carefully crafted, so thoughtful, so polished, it's almost scary to think this writer is just coming into his own.
THE LESSON tells the story of an alien invasion of the U.S. Virgin Islands and its effects on the people who live there, including Derrick, a young man who's fascinated by outer space and eventually becomes an employee in the office of the alien ambassador; his friend/girlfriend Patrice, who hates the aliens with a passion and can't understand why Derrick aligns himself with them; Jackson, Patrice's estranged father, who's undergoing a midlife crisis that leads him to the brink of an affair and, after the invasion, on a quest to discover the aliens' origins; Aubrey, his ex-wife, who begins a relationship with a female coworker that embitters Jackson even further; and many others. Watching these finely drawn everyday people cope with the unimaginable is one of the joys of reading this book; another is plunging into the world of the USVI, which Turnbull knows intimately and presents with sympathy but never with maudlin idealization. No one's perfect in this world, and all need to be taught a lesson--or many lessons--through the harsh reality of the aliens' presence.
The aliens themselves, known as the Ynaa, are for the most part mysterious figures whose reasons for occupying the islands are beyond the ken of the characters and, until late in the book, the reader. We know they're inclined to violence--they've outraged the islanders by killing human beings on the slightest pretext--and we also know they're possessed of miraculous medical and other technologies, but for the most part, they remain shrouded in menace and mystery. The sole exception to this rule is the character of Mera, the Ynaa ambassador with whom Derrick forms a tentative and prickly relationship. Perhaps the most astonishing chapter in the book is the one in which Turnbull delves into Mera's hundreds-of-years-old history in the USVI, a history that starts in the early 1700's; in this chapter, we not only see what makes Mera tick, but we perceive how the actual history of slavery and colonialism informs Turnbull's meditation on an imagined alien colonization. It's a remarkable performance, historically accurate and painfully real, and it could have stood on its own as a novella. Now that I think of it, I might use this book in the college class I teach on world literature, as it shows as keenly as any work I've read recently the effects of colonialism on those who live through it.
If I had to express reservations about this book, I would say that there's one short chapter I didn't find very well integrated with the rest, and one minor character whose importance toward the end of the novel I didn't feel was very well prepared for. But that's pretty small considering the scope and depth and intelligence of this masterful debut.
It makes my head spin to think what Turnbull is capable of next.
5.0 out of 5 starsA deliberate, tense meditation on colonialism and first contact
Reviewed in the United States on June 19, 2019
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
In Turnbull's debut novel he gives us a compelling and engaging character driven story that focuses on the humanity despite the backdrop of an alien presence. Through the intricately woven, yet distinct viewpoints of a family's already present discord compounded by the aliens’ arrival, he gives us a diverse cast who all deal with their personal traumas in their own ways, yet together link an emotionally captivating look at how change shapes us inside and out. His rendering of St. Thomas is visceral and thorough, and I can so easily picture the locations described and feel like I could navigate them myself were I ever to visit the island thanks to his efforts. The fleshed out setting and structure of the story make the inevitability of the climax even more tragic, but the events feel earned and consequential, not forced or out of place. The pacing is excellent, as the characters’ journeys go on simultaneously, and the focus on humanity while dealing with complex themes of love, loss, existence, and violence, among others, all come together wonderfully. A page turner, especially when the climax begins, a heart wrenching culmination of divergent arcs and many characters. My only lament is the unexplored, tantalizing bits of lore about the Ynaa, the wonderful character of Mera illuminating them in a brilliant way, and I’m left wanting to see what happens next for these characters after the ending. For fans of sci-fi and human stories alike, Turnbull confidently makes his presence known in the genre, drawing on our shared humanity to deliver topical commentary on society and the relationships that get us through the day. All I can say is I want a sequel, or at least more of this world/characters, and only wish there was already more to dive into.
It's books like The Lesson that remind me why I love to read sci-fi/spec fiction. While reading I found myself wanting to talk with the characters, seeing both the familiar and unfamiliar world-building (never been to St. Thomas, but I feel like I know it so much better now; and I feel like I could pick out a Ynaa if one were walking alongside me on the street), learn more about by the story's connection to history and language, and (most of all!) talk about the story and its lesson(s) with others immediately!
Further, as a reader of spec fiction, I love the characterization and narrative choices of this novel. The characters are real humans, with real and relatable fears and desires and outlooks. The web of characters that are central to the novel are introduced first, before any aliens show up, and they are the yard-sticks for the experience of a reader through the novel itself. It is a true-to-life account of what it is like to live under and be affected by larger historical moments in which your own subjective power and agency is in question.
Plus, the narrative decisions--from who's story to tell to when to tell it--maintain the ethos of the characters and how they are experiencing the arrival of the Ynaa. This does reach back into St. Thomas' past, but is continually grounded in the present that is being experienced by the characters. This is therefore a simultaneously material and allegorical story of colonization, but done entirely with the light touch of a talented story-teller who lets the reader know just enough when needed for the story, but pushes them to discuss and search for more from elsewhere. I do think it helps if you know about the Atlantic slave trade, about colonization and post-colonial theory, but I honestly think that lesson will be taught to you through the Ynaa's otherness.
Another reviewer said "it's hard to believe this is a debut novel". Amen to that. It's extremely well written, powerful, profound; it should, and probably will, be a classic. This guy is going to be one of the greats. He's much more in the vein of Ursula LeGuin than any other writer I can think of.
The book's very profound and moving, and extremely well written. I think it would make a great movie too, if they don't Hollywood it all up. At least there's not much danger of them putting Matt Damon in the lead role (because all the major characters are black). I mean, he's a great actor, but several movies have been ruined by casting him in roles he totally doesn't belong in. Please, no Will Smith either, OK? Chiwetl Ejiofor, fine, but he's too old to play the lead. But nah, they'll probably have to put more action in it, blow up London and Paris. Never mind.
Anyway, I don't want to give away the plot; too many other reviewers have already done too much of that, imho. Even though it's not really a plot-driven story; it's about the characters, one of very few where the characters are well developed and absolutely believable. I like the plot too, the way it ends sort of "not with a bang, but a whimper". (But that doesn't necessarily mean it ends with the end of the world. I'm not saying whether it does or no).
It's a meditation on conquest, oppression and slavery; it's sort of about alien invaders, but in a very different way. Somebody said "it's about violence and hope". There is some violence, but I don't feel it's about that. And the hope, which is not what you might think. It's not about hope things will turn out well; it's more about how hope and meaning are things WE bring to an uncaring universe.
4.0 out of 5 starsDifferent approach to the aliens arrive genre
Reviewed in the United States on June 22, 2019
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Life in the Virgin Islands before,during and after the aliens come. A detailed character study of an extended family and how it’s impacted when everything changes. The aliens have the answers to most everything but in the end The truths of the universe applies as much to them as they do to the humans.
An interesting take on the genre that ignores the bigger picture of when the aliens arrive to focus on the smaller stories and conflicts that arise within and between both cultures. The history of the virgin islands sets the stage for what happens again.
3.0 out of 5 starsI wanted to love this book, but . . .
Reviewed in the United States on August 11, 2019
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I am always interested in stories of first contact in speculative fiction, and this one was unusual. Some plot threads seemed superfluous, though, and I wanted much more information about the aliens than was provided. Why did they come? What did they want? Why did they leave? How were some humans altered by contact with the aliens? Universal themes of consciousness, identity, community, and family for both humans and aliens were introduced but not connected in ways satisfying to me. The notion of teaching a LESSON was referenced repeatedly but the exact nature of the LESSON was still murky by the time this book just sort of ended.
5.0 out of 5 starsA bold and thought-provoking scifi debut
Reviewed in the United States on June 23, 2019
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I’ve been a fan of Turnbull’s short fiction for some time (he’s been published in Nightmare, Lightspeed, and Asimov’s). In his debut novel, he displays a sure hand with plot and characters, creating a complex world that is firmly anchored in, and made more compelling by, its roots in real history. The Lesson should appeal to fans of the socially aware and thoughtfully constructed science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler, works that are concerned with more than the gee-whiz noise and flash of strange aliens and nifty new tech, that are deeply concerned with how encounters with beings not like us might change society, even as they echo events from our own past.
I spent Independence Day reading Cadwell Turnbull’s novel, The Lesson, and want to thank him for creating a fictive world capable of distracting me from the military excess taking place that day in DC. Of course, the world from which I sought refuge clearly penetrates Turnbull’s novel (and it wouldn’t be the powerful work of fiction it is without that invasion), but at least in the story I was able to confront and grapple with the very real historical issues underpinning the novel’s nightmares. The history embedded in the story, however painful, is essential, not only to plot and character but to what I believe art should do—wake us, teach us, challenge us. The Lesson is a good story, and there are enough stark parallels between its world and my own that it has kept me pondering. When will we recognize that vengeance will never bring back those we love (as Patrice counsels Lee)? When will we accept that when some play with fire, everyone can get “burned” (246)? And when will the “grace” of humility have a lasting impact “on the collective psyche” of humanity (242)? The Lesson enveloped me that day. I came to realize—ever more deeply—that the holes we try to fill may, indeed, be “the default state of all beings” (165). And those holes—whether self-, other-, or world-produced—are ours to reckon with. As Turnbull’s story suggests, no saviors can fill them. But, perhaps, if we can face ourselves with the level of scrutiny and candor that Derrick seemed to approach at the book’s conclusion, we may yet have hope.
Reviewed in the United States on February 15, 2020
Lesson Learned. Don’t always believe all the positive reviews. This book was terrible. I could barely get through it. But at only 286 pages I mustered through it to the end. And will not read this author ever again. This is basically a love story guised as a science fiction alien novel - and not a very good love story. Lots of choppy story lines and not enough depth on why the aliens appeared and then almost no description when they left suddenly. All men died. But only the US Virgin Islands. Why just USVI? Why no reference to the rest of the world and what their reaction is to an alien ship hovering above a Caribbean island? US government would be all over this...so this is just a ridiculous story and the author goes off on many tangents that are unnecessary. No thank you.
I adored this novel on so many levels. It grabbed me immediately and didn’t let go until the end. The characters were wonderful, complex, nuanced, and have still stuck with me a month after completing this book. I truly enjoyed learning more about the culture and life in St. Thomas, as well as the history of slavery in the Virgin Islands, mostly new to me. This novel was both moving and made me think, the very best sort of read. Overall, The Lesson has an indefinable quality that, whenever I think of the story, it just makes me smile. I highly recommend it.
I enjoyed reading this book but I was forever lost in with who and when I was in the book. I am not sure when it became in vogue to tell a story from the middle outwards. Jumping around so much you never can tell what leads to what, what is connected and why. Call me old fashion but when I have to go back 20-30 pages to figure out what the heck is going on I get wishful for a story that’s told in a straight line. Not to mention the ending felt like the writer just got tired and stopped writing. Premise is very good tho.
5.0 out of 5 starsA thoughtful first contact story
Reviewed in the United States on June 20, 2019
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I preordered this book several months ago after seeing it mentioned on Twitter, and read it as soon as it became available. It's a thoughtful story about power, invasion/colonization, and the horrible consequences of violence. It doesn't bog down in philosophical ramblings, though: it's a quick read because it keeps moving forward. Highly recommended.
5.0 out of 5 starsIntimate, tightly written, wonderful
Reviewed in the United States on December 27, 2019
Turnbull's debut novel feels like the work of an experienced writer: it's tightly plotted and its style is as concise as it is elegant and poetic. The characters are, for the most part, well defined, nuanced, and far from the clichés that, unfortunately, are so common in science fiction. Its themes of colonialism, empathy, and the struggle for life are clear without being hammered over and over again. Wonderful novel.
A stunning debut novel. If I hadn't the need to sleep I would have been compelled to finish in one sitting. Instead, it took two.
The novel is a refreshingly original take on an alien contact story. Fans of Childhood's End and the like will find familiar beats, but nothing about Turnbull's book is as simple as a mere modernization of classic tropes. He brings us a bright cast of characters in a new setting, each dealing with the appearance of charitable but ambiguously-motivated aliens in their own way. He explores colonialism through the way these aliens impact daily life. And he shrouds the energetic story beneath a constant hum of perilous darkness to keep the reader from getting too comfortable.