Rivers Solomon’s 2021 Sorrowland is a standalone contemporary SF novel.
Vern finally escapes the Blessed Acres of Cain, the African-American separatist community in which she was raised. She leaves behind her mother and Reverend Sherman, the husband she did not want. She takes with her her two unborn children.
The woods into which she flees are a refuge … but a forbidding one.
Vern survives giving birth unattended in the wild. One twin she names Feral, the other Howling. Returning to the Blessed Acres of Cain is unthinkable, as is any immediate foray into the white man’s world. Having no apparent choice in the matter, she raises the two children in rustic isolation for a number of years.
Vern and her children are not entirely alone. Vern believes that the fiend (a supernatural figure in which her former cult believes) is threatening them. She might dismiss this belief as mere myth and superstition …except there are hints that there is some malevolent entity that is sending agents to look for her.
Tempted out of isolation by the need for human contact, Vern eventually takes up her original quest, to find her childhood friend Lucy. Retrieved from the cult and her father by her unbelieving mother years earlier, Lucy’s fate and location are unclear. Those living in the Blessed Acres are discouraged from communicating with the outside world. Nevertheless, Vern has a few clues that might lead her to Lucy. Vern’s lack of money and her two children are but minor impediments to the determined woman.
Vern carries with her the genetic legacy of the Blessed Acres of Cain, a gift whose nature she cannot guess. This makes her of tremendous interest to the Blessed Acres’ true architects: bold, inhumane visionaries for whom an isolated community of African-Americans offered an ideal controlled testing ground. However, Vern’s antagonists do not understand just what it is they have created.
Sorrowland is suffused with a deep-seated distrust concerning other people’s motivations. This distrust is perhaps strongest when white people are concerned, but it is not limited to white people. Vern is well aware that all too many people, when given the chance, have exploited power for personal gain and spite.
We would prefer to believe that Vern’s distrust is too pessimistic by far; optimistic confidence that people will probably do the right thing (even when mildly inconvenient) is much more appealing. We would like Vern to be wrong … and she is. She’s not cautious enough by half. What’s going on is actually much, much worse than she thought.
Given the framing of the story — a highly religious community, Vern’s apparent superstition about unseen fiends — one might expect a modern fantasy. As it turns out, however, this is not the case. There are physical mechanisms for what happens. The book may start off looking like fantasy but it’s science fiction.
Vern is prickly and suspicious (not the most appealing qualities; as noted above, we as a species seem to prefer sunny optimism). It’s a tribute to the author’s skill that readers do care about what happens to Vern and her kin.