The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. ★★★1/2
The Root is an intriguing blend of urban and portal fantasy with a wonderfully diverse cast.
Erik’s a former teen star living in San Francisco. He thought his life was complicated enough, but now he’s finding out that he’s Blooded – descended from gods and gifted with powers he doesn’t understand. He also finds himself in the middle of a secret battle, between Blooded and a government organization kidnapping them and trading them off to an alternate dimension.
Lil’s an apprentice archivist in said alternate dimension, where humans are subservient to demonic beings. Yet a strange and powerful darkness is taking over her city, and the rulers are turning to the human archivists to look for answers. Lil’s life will soon become a tightrope walk between her demonic rulers and her power hungry fellow archivists.
The Root has some of the usual urban fantasy tropes, but the portal fantasy aspect and the alternate world really helped it feel fresh. I loved the inventiveness of the demonic world! Organic buildings and insect-like transportation… It actually reminded me a bit of the work of Max Gladstone, which is high praise indeed.
Erik is eighteen years old, and I think Lil is around the same age. While reading it, I didn’t think of The Root as being YA, but it might make for a good cross over. It just didn’t fit into the structure or tropes I typically expect from YA literature. I did like that Erik’s parents were actually alive, present, and played a role in the narrative. It’s a more interesting decision than having them be mysteriously dead or vanished. Plus, those are already over used in fantasy fiction.
Most of the cast are people of color and queer characters. Erik’s gay and his career dissolved due to a scandal involving his ex-boyfriend. We don’t learn the details until later into the book, and it made for a nice personal mystery. I think Lil may be bisexual? She hasn’t had any confirmed romantic interest of yet. The supporting cast includes plenty of other queer characters, including a trans boy and a f/f couple. If you’re looking for inclusive urban fantasy, The Root would be a good bet.
However, I do think The Root would have benefited from narrowing its use of POVs. Practically every significant character has at least one POV section. It’s a bit overwhelming at times. Off the top of my head, I can remember at least fourteen, but there’s probably some I’m missing. I felt like so many POV sections cluttered the narrative.
The only other criticism I have regarding structure is that I expected more out of the climax. I guess I assumed that Lil and Erik’s sections would intertwine by then? It looks like that’s not going to happen until the next book. Other than those two criticisms, I found The Root to be generally well executed, especially for a debut novel. It’s a strong start, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.