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The Lesson (2019)

by Cadwell Turnbull

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2851194,606 (3.37)7
Fiction. Literature. Science Fiction. HTML:

An alien ship rests over Water Island. For five years the people of the US Virgin Islands have lived with the Ynaa, a race of superadvanced aliens on a research mission they will not fully disclose. They are benevolent in many ways but meet any act of aggression with disproportional wrath. This has led to a strained relationship between the Ynaa and the local Virgin Islanders and a peace that cannot last.

A year after the death of a young boy at the hands of an Ynaa, three families find themselves at the center of the inevitable conflict, witness and victim to events that will touch everyone and teach a terrible lesson.

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» See also 7 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
An interesting take on first encounters. Turnbull obviously knows how to write. The first several chapters were difficult to slog through- seemed a lot like a soap opera, and the last chapter or so the same. The conceit of alien relationships wears a little thin here. But, Turnbull does have some interesting observations about relationships, and the story has enough drive to retain reader interest. ( )
  keithostertag | Oct 2, 2023 |
I truly enjoyed this.
What an interesting perspective on colonialism. ( )
  LoisSusan | Dec 10, 2020 |
At first this book seems like a simple alien invasion with a little interspecies love gone wrong subplot, set in the author’s native US Virgin Islands. Not an unusual story, but set in an unusual(for sci-fi) place. An alien race called the Ynaa descend on Water Island in a conch-shell shaped ship. They’re not hostile, exactly, but they are touchy in a way that can be dangerous, and they quickly impose a reign of tense, martial superiority over the residents of Charlotte Amalie. The islanders have a variety of reactions, of course. Some love the Ynaa, some hate them, and some maintain a wary, distant tolerance. However, everyone’s life is deeply affected by the aggressive, possessive stance the Ynaa take over their corner of Earth, mitigated only by the presence of a centuries old ambassador who’s been living undercover among the humans as a Black woman and has learned to care for the locals. (One human is affected by this much more…personally, than the rest.) The ambassador’s presence doesn’t stave off violence successfully and the book leads to a devastating, scary conclusion that took me completely by surprise given the slow setup. There’s nothing exactly new about this book–a lot of sci-fi deals with social integration and relationships with alien beings and all the ways first contact could possibly go wrong. My first impressions of this book were that the only thing that made it truly special was the setting.


I’m happy to say my first impressions were wrong. By the time we get to the first big death, a lot of layers have been unrolled and continue to be, making this a remarkably culturally literate bit of speculative fiction. It’s more special than it appears at first glance. Inside this alien invasion are themes of generational and historical trauma, colonialism, gendered violence in African diasporic communities, and some very interesting commentary on what it takes for victims to become conquerors–or if that’s even a thing that can really happen.


Despite all of that the novel never feels too heavy and is as entertaining as it is deep. It’s distinctly Caribbean as well, in a very natural way. I liked it and will definitely keep an eye out for whatever Turnbull writes next.


Okay, all of that and still only 4 stars? I have to be honest and say that the writing never quite did it for me. It’s very much what I like to call “MFA style”–large, self-conscious blocks of very deliberate, laborious action spattered with short paragraphs of weirdly purple descriptive prose. It’s competent and the story is well-crafted enough to make it tolerable, but man, loosen up a little next time, will you? I am here for global science fiction entirely and I want more books from Turnbull, but I also want him to unstarch his collar a little bit next time, let the prose flow and the culture shine through so the themes bubble a little longer in the reader’s spirit.

Overall though, I liked this quite a bit, and I’m excited about the wave of diasporic takes on science fiction it’s riding the crest of. It’d be interesting to see a thematic trilogy of books set in the Virgin Islands from this author, kind of like Tade Thomson’s Rosewater series.

If you liked this review, find more like it on my blog, Equal Opportunity Reader. Also follow me onFacebook and Instagram. Peace! ( )
  EQReader | Dec 1, 2020 |
A gem of a story. I love how the author does the opposite of what many do with stories of aliens. Their arrival isn't seen through the lens of disaster and terror. The presence of the Ynaa emerges quietly, as everyone is going about their business. In fact, at least one of them has been there for centuries already. The setting is also divine, St Thomas, an island, that both gives the story an immediate humanity then also contributes to the rising tension around the Ynaa's intentions. One of my best reads of the year. ( )
  MaximusStripus | Jul 7, 2020 |
In this novel Turnbull turns the alien invasion/first contact trope around. The US Virgin Islands have been colonized. The Ynaa don't invade, they arrive and settle in, but their power and the danger they bring is all-encompasing. They are looking for something--exactly what, I never figured out. And though the St Thomas residents can, essentially, go about their business as before, they are on tiptoes. Angry Ynaa kill--people, dogs, whatever. And there is no recourse for survivors. The Ynaa do as they please. And though they have brought wonderful gifts to the people of Earth--especially advances in medicine and energy--it is the black population of St Thomas who have had to deal with the Ynaa on a daily basis.

Some St Thomians hate the Ynna. Some have been saved by their medical abilities. Others are afraid and leave for the mainland when they get a chance. Others are fascinated by them and the place they came from. For the most part the Ynaa and the St Thomians do not mix--with a few exceptions.

Though I felt this book had a few holes (what are they looking for? what is the blue sphere? what, exactly, is "the lesson"?), it was interesting to look at colonization by an alien species. Because the strangeness of it all has to be how other civilizations have felt about colonization by Europeans, the Mongols, and other civilizations. Suddenly, they are there--bearing gifts and making new rules, changing cultures and traditions just by being there. ( )
  Dreesie | Jun 21, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Cadwell Turnbullprimary authorall editionscalculated
Butler, RonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Edwards, JaninaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
English, Kathryn GallowayCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Fiction. Literature. Science Fiction. HTML:

An alien ship rests over Water Island. For five years the people of the US Virgin Islands have lived with the Ynaa, a race of superadvanced aliens on a research mission they will not fully disclose. They are benevolent in many ways but meet any act of aggression with disproportional wrath. This has led to a strained relationship between the Ynaa and the local Virgin Islanders and a peace that cannot last.

A year after the death of a young boy at the hands of an Ynaa, three families find themselves at the center of the inevitable conflict, witness and victim to events that will touch everyone and teach a terrible lesson.

.

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