As I was thinking how to start this review of Cadwell Turnbull’s We Are the Crisis, planning on noting how it slots into the category of “one of those books I admired but didn’t fully fall into,” I thought I’d refresh my memory of my thoughts on its predecessor, No Gods, No Monsters. And darn if I didn’t open that review with “the book had me admiring it more than enjoying it.” So I guess we’re both pretty consistent, huh?
And indeed, We Are the Crisis has all the same strengths I praised No Gods, No Monsters for: a complex structure, wonderfully crafted sentences, a strong sense of timeliness, a diverse cast of characters, a richly layered exploration of multiple weighty themes. They’re all here again as the novel picks up a few years after the events of book one (some spoilers for that book to follow).
Ever since the “monsters” have been revealed to the world (or one of the worlds—more on that later), it seems to be heading down a path toward inevitable conflict, despite attempts by some to avoid war (and attempts by others to encourage it). Some monsters are disappearing, perhaps going into hiding, perhaps being kidnapped, perhaps being killed. Some monsters are forming activist groups, revealing themselves to select groups, and seeking out human allies. On the other side, human supremacist groups (particularly one known as the Black Hand) are becoming more public and more active, with if not active support from law enforcement at least a willing oblivious eye or a suspiciously slow response to attacks on monsters. Bills are being debated over legal protection for monsters. And behind it all, two ancient Orders or cults of monster continue their age-old battle even as one deals with its own schism. And, as noted earlier, key events are occurring on more than one world, as amongst all the other things Turnbull’s trilogy is, it’s also a tale of the multiverse, which allows for a semi-omniscient narrator “dreaming” his way across the universe (s) as well as (and this is all I’ll say about this), one hell of an ending.
We met that narrator in book one, along with most of the main characters driving events (or reacting to them) here, including but not limited to:
- A trio of werewolves: Ridley and Laina (husband and wife) and Rebecca
- “Dragon”: a young monster who recently escaped long imprisonment and manipulation
- Alex, a former CIA agent, spying one of the monster activist groups (though she may not fully know who for or why)
- Sondra: a senator from St. Thomas who is also a were-dog
- Aleister Crowley: yes, that one
Violence is prevalent throughout the book as the world (s) seemingly careens toward war between humans and monsters. Lynch mobs are mentioned, “disappeared” monsters, and the book starts off with a bang, in a classic werewolves vs. vampires fight scene. Several other such scenes follow, along with one more wide-scale conflict that Turnbull nicely builds up to with increasing tension in the moments beforehand. But amongst all the actual violence, off-stage violence, and predicted violence, characters, often at great risk to themselves, still try to find a way through to a new world where humans and monsters can peacefully co-exist. A better world overall — more open, more just, more equitable; a world less driven by competition and capitalism. Whether that’s a fool’s dream has yet to be seen.
In that vein, Turnbull is working in some well-established terrain. The monsters can clearly be read, a la the X-Men, as a stand-in for any marginalized group, and it doesn’t take much imaginative work (really, none at all) on the reader’s part to replace “monster” at various points in the text with any such group (“queer”, “Black”, “refugee”, “migrant”, etc.) and have the rephrased sentence mean exactly what it means in the universe of the novel. Equally familiar is the question of “Just who really are the monsters here?”, though to his credit Turnbull doesn’t present a simple, pat answer to that by painting all monsters as good/victims and all humans as bad/predators. Keeping to his deeply realistic despite the fantasy trapping style, Turnbull presents it as the complicated mess life usually is. Finally, we’re also dealing with a recognizable “found family” theme, though I’d say less prevalently than in book one (mostly because the families have already been found), as well as the usual messiness of actual families.
Familiar as the metaphors and themes might be, there’s no doubt Turnbull executes those themes exceedingly well. Just as he handles any of the technical craft. Characters are sharply drawn; for the most part the dialogue is realistic and natural, with a few speechifying moments outside of the actual speeches; the structure requires readerly attention as it moves backwards and forward in time and space and across multiple worlds, but those shifts are handled smoothly and clearly and I have no complaint about an author requiring a reader to pay attention; and as noted above, Turnbull shows a deft hand at creating tension.
My only issue, and not much of one honestly, is that as with No Gods, No Monsters, I felt curiously distant from the book’s events and characters. I admired what Turnbull was doing on a craft level, his ambition on a thematic and structural level, found myself nodding my head in agreement with some of the characters’ thinking, felt at least somewhat anxious at all the appropriate moments, but never felt fully immersed in the story, never felt like I was fully inhabiting the story or its characters. It impressed me, it stimulated me, it provoked me, but it didn’t move me. But that simply prevented me from giving it a 5 out of 5; otherwise, it’s a book and a series I’m happily recommending.