Music maker becomes social shaker

Review: Song of Kitaba

Mark Everglade, 252 pages

Revolutions are messy.

They are not, as often depicted in fiction, neatly conceived tales with pre-ordained plots that follow an assured path to victory. In real life, revolutions are conceived in struggle, their course erratic, with failure often the closest ally and end result.

My favorite aspect of Song of Kitaba, marketed as a ‘hopepunk’ novel by author Mark Everglade, is that it not only entertains us readers with its hero, conflicts, and stakes, but it also enlightens us with an organic tale of political transformation fraught with triumphs, setbacks, and disappointments.

Kitaba Mahahara, a musician who goes by ‘Kit,’ escapes from her mountain village where writing (free expression) is prohibited by the chief. After her beloved Auran is executed for breaking the law (his bloodstream filled with ink), Kit flees to the tech-saturated city of Catonis seeking supporters for her revolution against her people’s oppression.

There, Kit finds recruits for her quest, but she is also recruited by monks to help them undermine the political structure of the city, because its citizens, like Kit’s villagers, also suffer from oppression. In Catonis, people’s thoughts are shared on ‘senti-screens,’ paved into roads and framed into buildings, policed by government Enforcers. In time, dissenters of the regime are imprisoned, punished, and/or killed by these thought police.

Although the means of social control differ between the story’s rural and urban settings (public censoring versus public shaming), the justification for government overreach, to preserve peace and security, are the same. Everglade uses this compare-and-contrast approach toward both societies as a means to deftly highlight a common problem of civilization: too often, ‘progress’ is motivated by fear, and the vision he provides over the course of the story alludes to what a more spiritually inclined culture might look like, motivated by love.

As such, Song of Kitaba is not so much a suspenseful page-turner intended to manipulate us with its intrigues and reversals, but an honest immersion into a believable world filled with flawed but well-intended characters who grapple with their selves as much as their surroundings. Kit is a passionate yet stubborn protagonist, aware of her shortcomings, and she is more endearing because of it. The misfit friends she makes along the way are very human, sometimes deceitful to themselves and others, in their efforts to change the world.

While the novel rings true to its ‘hopepunk’ ethos, with violence often implied or occurring offstage, there is no shortage of fascinating scenes and social commentary to make us cringe. A good example is when Kit enters the Catonis spy center and finds legless old men sitting in wheelchairs along a table, their faces planted into viewing screens, wires jammed into the back of their heads as they analyze everyone else’s thoughts in the city, looking for traitors.

Kit empathizes with their slavery and wants to free them, but her partner explains that it’s no use because, “… they’re too fried to contemplate freedom.”

Such characters remind me of what I secretly fear most as a modern-day office-dweller: evolving alongside my cubicle to become a hunched-over spreadsheet-gazer whom, due to my own lack of activity, am no longer are able to use my own limbs.

These stand-out scenes in the book, and there are many, provide the fodder for thoughtful reading that dance around the premise of a corrupt surveillance state. There are even violas used for hang-gliding and electrifying braids of hair used as whips that Everglade skillfully writes into the story in a way that is cool.

The artful descriptions and Eastern wisdom, shared page after page, indicate a level of genre science fiction writing that has a strong literary bent, and the language and insight support the candid, and ultimately optimistic, tale of revolution:

The river was no longer a gentle lover but a cold, concrete block she struggled to swim through.

His kind created a society where men held the door open for women but couldn’t construct a door with basic carpentry skills.

His hands rose to encase her face, neck, shoulders, his fingers dangling like keychains that would unlock all the right places.

Reading Song of Kitaba has been a pleasant and reflective respite, leaving me wondering about the machinations that often interfere with our species’ individual and collective plight to achieve our greatest aspirations.

Well played, Everglade.

Ryan Hyatt, Sept. 23, 2022

Categories: Reviews

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