Darcie Little Badger’s 2021 A Snake Falls to Earth is a contemporary fantasy.
Nina’s great-great-grandmother Rosita dies at an advanced age, leaving Rosita’s grieving descendants with questions that the ancient Lipan Apache woman can no longer answer. For example, how is it that Rosita turns out to have been at least 150 years old, if not older? Modern medicine is good, but not that good.
Rosita was a rare survivor of Texas’ campaign of Lipan genocide1. Her descendants are therefore cautious of any involvement with officialdom and don’t investigate this anomaly in any way that would attract official attention.
Nina thinks there might be an answer in the Lipan lore that Rosita shared before dying. Surely a little private investigation won’t attract unwelcome attention. But it does.
The Reflecting World plays an important role in Lipan religion, although thanks to the events of the last few centuries, Nina has little information about her people’s beliefs. It is a dimension linked to our own. This world is populated primarily by non-thinking fungi, plants, and animals. However, it is also home to a few monsters and a larger population of shape-shifting animal people. These shape-shifters are deeply linked to the animal species in the real world: thus the name, Reflecting World. If the species goes extinct, the shape-shifters will die.
This isn’t a problem for Oli, a cottonmouth shape-shifter. There are still lots of cottonmouths. But it is for his friend Ami, who is linked to a near-extinct species of toad. Toads are dying out and Ami is sick.
Oli and his friends set out for our world, determined to discover why Ami’s toad species is on the brink of extinction, and what might be done to reverse that. The path they choose lands them in Nina’s backyard. Nina is more than willing to help but what can one sixteen-year-old do to save an entire species? Particularly when a powerful climate-change-driven storm is even now bearing down on Nina’s family property….
The shape-shifters seem to be potentially immortal as long their analogs on Earth exist, which makes the carnivorous shifters habit of sometimes noshing on the smaller shape-shifters a bit rude. Although I suppose it avoids overcrowding.
Somewhere out there, there is a conservative school-board member who is going to throw fits when their kid reads an uplifting and diverting novel that acknowledges the Lipan Apache genocide.
(The genocide is relevant to the novel in that so much history and lore were lost when the tribe was close to wiped out. Nina would have a much easier time helping Oli and Ami if she knew more about the Reflecting World.)
This is a quietly polished work, which manages to tie together a diverse array of threads, historical and future, into a quilt that informs without confusing, one that younger readers will enjoy. At the same time, a creaky person like myself can also enjoy it.
1: About the Lipan. Lipan is an Athabascan language, which is a family of languages with a really interesting geographic distribution.
Athabaskan speaking people appear to have migrated south comparatively recently (in the last thousand years). At one time it was suggested the eruption of Alaska’s White River volcano might have played a role in encouraging migration south. I don’t know what the current consensus is.