Saturday night, I read Sins of the Father by Thelonius Legend. It’s a first novel, and (to me) even more importantly, it’s a novel that’s a sibling of one I’ve been struggling to edit, Annie Brown and the Superhero Blues. I was cheered to discover that I was not alone, that my novel had kinfolk and a context.
So before I write the review, I’m going to give you the full disclosure. I’m a reader, of course, and I’m also a novelist. I don’t know the author personally, but I bought his novel shortly after it came out, and then followed him as I got more active on Twitter. He hosts the #BlackWritersChat and #BlackComicsChat, and has a passionate interest in mentoring young creative talent. I spend some part of my Twitter time signal-boosting people and ideas that excite me, and our common interest in mentoring and community-building has brought us together.
I’m a novelist, who’s currently struggling through a backlist of work to be edited, fourteen novels at last count. I read for pleasure a lot, I beta-read a lot, but there are certain subjects close to my heart.
Sins of the Father hits several of my own favorite themes: young women growing up and finding their way in the world, figuring out family and culture and class and what it means to be who they are in America. Who they are, the Parker sisters, are a trio of African-American superheroes. Who else they are: the daughters of Barry and Michelle, descendants of a family with serious expectations, passionate student/athletes, and victims or beneficiaries (sometimes both) of an experiment done on their father.
They’re also funny, irreverent, rivalrous and affectionate by turns. As one of three sisters, I can attest to Mr. Legend’s accuracy in writing adolescent sibling dynamics. Superhero stories are particularly suited for exploring the roller-coaster of coming-of-age, where it’s drama and suspense one moment, comedy the next, with cloudbursts of angst and the lightning of young love or infatuation (sometimes hard to tell which).
While they’re bit players in a story that foregrounds their extraordinary daughters, Barry and Michelle are real people, frazzled parents who just discovered that their cup runneth over, very much in the fashion of Buckingham Fountain, complete with jets, spray, and light-show. He’s got me thinking about a Parents of Superheroes support group, with all the hilarity and exhaustion that implies.
This novel feels huge, in a good way. Our exuberant author has stuffed it full of good things, in the over-the-top operatic mode of truly great comics. Your typical comic book is a slim volume indeed, but the pictures are full of poetry and color and flow, and the true comics fan spends a lot of time on the re-read. The world between those slim covers expands to a universe, and comics fans and creators alike speak without irony of universes and even multi-verses.
Mr. Legend has a great touch with dialogue, once he’s well into the story; hang in there, because the first few chapters set up the game, and then the pace picks up (frequently achieving supersonic speeds). His timing with scenes of suspense and action is great, whether it’s three first-time self-taught covert operatives breaking into a Super Secret Facility, young athletes sparring in tae kwon do, or a star player learning teamwork in basketball. His comedic sensibility takes hairpin turns from laughter to ‘whoa this got real’ and back again.
This is a first novel, with all the exuberance and glorious excess that implies. There are more coming down the road (author has promised so in public), and I will add that the observations I’m about to make apply equally to me (she says ruefully, recognizing her own novelistic sins & virtues in another). There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, like the wild ride of a first novel in full flood. Everything wants to be included, and the miracle of this story is that everything does get included! There’s the thrill of achieving artistic self-trust, the manic joy of storytelling, and the thrill of mashing up what you know from life with what comes straight out of imagination, collective or individual.
Then comes the cold light of day, where you have to cut. The more I write, the more I treasure the opportunity to get it right on the second try. And what I do there is to cut and rearrange, just like my artistic brothers and sisters in video and film. My earliest novels are a lot wordier than their younger siblings, a lot less trusting in the reader to get the floor plan, the setup, the interplay between the characters and their setting. In Thelonius Legend’s first novel, I see another author learning that trust as he moves into the middle of the game, with strong and heart-stopping suspense and action.
Mr. Legend loves his big paragraphs. OK, I love mine too, because I am a child of the 19th century in spite of what my parents would tell you. I found Sins of the Father a sweet and easy read on my laptop Kindle app, but much bumpier on my smartphone. (Which is now a test I’m going to apply to my own work, note to self.)
I’ve learned a lot about what I want in my own craft by blue-penciling other writers. Classics and published writers, mind you: Dostoevsky and the Dresden Files, Proust and Harry Potter, all came in for the “if I were the editor” treatment. As a slightly more experienced writer, I can see the extra words in this first novel’s prose, but there are never so many that they obscure the heart of the matter.
Thelonius Legend has taken on a wild ride here, and the sheer exuberance of story and characters resemble a chariot pulled by six or seven hyperactive race horses. He keeps it going across hill and dale, without losing the glimpses of real heart through the action. If I had to choose, I prefer a loose limbed epic with heart to a Lean Mean Story Machine with all the feeling whittled away in favor of plot.
Tucked inside this production of a first-time novelist are the seeds of the many, many novelists he could become in future: the teller of thrilling sports stories, suspense thrillers, tender tales of first love. The potential revealed here is multifarious; this first novel is not perfect but it provided me with a rousing evening’s entertainment, as well as a sense of anticipation for things to come.
Take a flyer on this one, cause it’s good, and I am willing to bet some serious money that the next ones are going to be even better.