Review copy provided by the publisher.
This is a reissue, and I read this book about ten years ago, when it was fairly new, so when I got the ARC of the new edition, I knew it was a book I would like, because I’ve liked it before. Still, this isn’t a book I’ve seen discussed as often as I’d expect for being a Tiptree winner, so it’s great that it has a new edition with new fanfare from Tor Dot Com.
The subject matter, the theme, is if anything even more timely, because this is a book whose characters keep returning to the idea of free people. One of the two title characters is of Seminole and Irish heritage (the other is Black, and most of the characters are Black), and he uses the Seminole words istî siminolî, free people, as a refrain through the book: even without legalized slavery in their milieu, the characters are still struggling for true freedom with and for each other and for their communities.
The setting ranges through the late 19th and early 20th century America, taking Redwood (Sequoia) and Aidan Cooper/Wildfire from sharecropping and swamps to the World’s Fair, traveling theater life, settlement houses, and early moving pictures. Redwood, her late mother, and her little sister Iris all work hoodoo as a major element of this book, but it is not easy being a hoodoo worker in Reconstruction or the beginning of the Great Migration and trying to find where and how to feel right with yourself, in your own skin and with your own actions.
This is not an easy book. A great many horrible things happen to the characters. There’s sexual violence, there’s substance abuse, there’s exactly as much racism directed against the main cast as you would think there might be–and I’m not even sure I’ve got all the relevant content warnings if I was writing a comprehensive list. But there’s also love between friends and family, people making good food and art and hope, and yes, even a happy ending. While it’s not a fluffy romp, not everything has to be to get to be ultimately positive about its characters and their ability to make a loving place for themselves in a world that didn’t hand them one.