2023’s Abeni’s Song is the first volume in P. Djèlí Clark’s Abeni’s Song fantasy series.
Young Abeni’s village lies deep in the forest. News about the outside world is intermittent and as far as the villagers are concerned, irrelevant. Disturbing dreams and warnings from the local wise woman can therefore be ignored.
They are wrong. Their next Harvest Festival will be the last.
The old woman appears at the Harvest Festival with two errands in mind: to collect the child owed to her by a standing agreement and to convince the villagers to flee. Results are mixed; Abeni is named as the child, but the villagers reject the old woman’s alarmist words until it is too late.
The Witch Priest’s supernatural army descends on the village. All are captured and dragged off to who knows what fate. There are two exceptions: the old woman and Abeni. When it becomes clear she has no choice, Abeni reluctantly takes refuge with the old woman.
Many villagers believed the old woman was a witch. This is not exactly correct, but it is not so far from the truth. The old woman knows many things, some magical, some not. She is determined to teach Abeni what she knows. Habitually secretive, the old woman is not as frank as she should be. In particular, she conceals what she really is and how little time the old woman has left to her.
Abeni is determined to save her people. She will have to do so without the old woman. Abeni will find new allies and old allies in unfamiliar forms. Whether this will be sufficient is unclear; the Witch Priest is not merely powerful; the Witch Priest controls a vast army of monsters and supernatural entities. What can one small group do against such forces?
There are a number of occasions where Abeni is given clear directives to avoid certain actions, but is not given any explanation or justification. It’s easy enough to ignore the directives … only to discover once it was nearly too late just why her mentor provided the guidelines that she did.
In the old woman’s defense, part of the reason she is so secretive is because she is worried that knowing the full truth will upset Abeni enough to drive her away. In Abeni’s defense, it isn’t as if she could have learned to listen to the old woman from her fellow villagers (given that they ignored the old woman’s unambiguously dire warnings). Abeni does get better at not leaping blindly into potentially dangerous situations.
It seems clear not just that Clark has particular historical events in mind as a model, but which events those might be. The younger readers for whom this is intended may not recognize Clark’s source material but adults will. Or at least should. Florida residents should be aware it’s probably illegal now for you to understand this novel’s subtext.
This is a very adult middle-grade novel. The plot begins with a mass enslaving event with some prisoners destined to be carried off in the Ghost Ships of the mysterious but certainly malevolent wraiths. The Witch Priest is in the habit of transforming captured children into merciless foot soldiers. Even when rescued, the former slaves remain deeply traumatized. No matter the results of Abeni’s quests, the old normalcy will never be restored.
At the same time, this is a middle-grade novel. Abeni faces many impediments, which she overcomes. She is forced to reassess her goals but invariable emerges a better person for the experiences. She never allows herself to become crushed by setbacks and calamities. Which, given that this is the first book of the series, is just as well because she still has a lot to do.
Abeni’s Song is available (for pre-order, unless you are reading this after July 25th) here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).