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The Lesson
by Cadwell Turnbull

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 14, 2019

Thanks to Edelweiss for the e-book ARC of Cadwell Turnbull's debut novel in exchange for an honest review. The Lesson will be published in a little over a month, June 18, 2019. It is recommended.

SF is full of alien invasion stories, but this one comes at it from a unique direction. The aliens don't land in Washington, New York, Moscow, London, or Beijing, nor does contact begin in present day or near future. Since the Ynaa are from a world of mostly water with a few island nations, their advance scout chooses to observe humanity in a similar environment. In this case it's the island group that would later be known as the Virgin Islands, the author's birthplace. Mera assumed many names and personas over the hundreds of years she had been on Earth. Due to the majority population, she typically appeared as an African-Caribbean woman, at times a slave, at others a freed obeah woman, although her healing abilities come from advanced technology, not sorcery. The story also tracks several residents of St. Thomas, shortly before and then after a Ynaa ship takes up a position over Water Island in Charlotte Amalie Harbor. Derrick is a teenage boy living with his grandmother and younger sister Lee, in first floor apartments below those of the owner, Jackson, who is one of Derrick's high school teachers. Derrick's father died when he was young, his mother abandoned them shortly after Lee was born. Jackson's wife is Aubrey, his daughter Patrice is a good friend (and later girlfriend for a while) of Derrick's. There are other friends, teachers, and townspeople mentioned, but the main focus is on this core group, exploring how different people adapt to the world-changing events following the aliens' arrival. Some things may not have been much different even if the Ynaa had never come.

Most are fearful of the Ynaa, Derrick's Gram even calling them demons. Faith is a strong component of many of their lives, although Derrick doesn't have a concrete spiritual faith. He's a free-thinker, always more fascinated with science and space, so he's more willing to give the Ynaa a chance. The arrival of the Ynaa ship is sometime in 2019, then there is a flash-forward of five years. Derrick was able to get a job as assistant to Mera, who has been named the Ynaa ambassador to humanity. He is ostracized by many for this, since there have been several violent interactions with the Ynaa, the aliens always coming out on top. Mera tries to explain how they have been conditioned to react violently to threats, so humans should give them space and avoid confrontations. A few just can't accept that, especially ones whose family members were among the victims. One compromise that has been reached is the Ynaa are restricted to St. Thomas and nearby islands. They have revealed several technological marvels that are quickly adopted, especially those concerning medical advancements and clean energy. They say they are only researching different cultures and will leave Earth shortly, but many don't buy that. It is possible some Ynaa have infiltrated other areas incognito. In addition to teaching, Jackson had been researching for a book about the islands and the various invasions they had faced over the years, from Europe and America. Now he has shifted to writing about the Ynaa. He is convinced at least some of them had been here much longer than anyone else suspects. Of course he's right, but can he get others to believe him?

There are ten chapters of varying lengths, each with their own title. Some are about Mera's earlier experiences, several give us a second (or third) look at an event, but from a different person's perspective. Occasional side characters are introduced, but their significance to the overall picture isn't revealed until later. It only took a few sentences to realize I had read one of the chapters before. "A Third of the Stars in Heaven" was published in December 2017 in Lightspeed Magazine, and is still available to read free online. It is set in both "current day" (2024), along with a flashback to 1963. It's not until a later chapter we find out who Henrietta is, since before we only knew her by her relation to another character. I won't reveal that here, nor what her experience in '63 was about. There are scenes of tension and violence, but no bombast, no great battles, mostly isolated incidents with just a few participants. There are also quieter moments of reflection, of the changing relationships between various human characters, or between human and Ynaa. As I said before, some of the events might have been much the same with or without the Ynaa. People fall in love, or out of love, leave their partner or find new ones. Life goes on, and will go on, no matter what the Ynaa do.

Mera is not the only Ynaa to question their agenda, to develop a compassion for humanity. The Ynaa's "lesson" originally seemed to be something humans were already aware of, survival of the fittest. Ynaa lived longer, were much stronger, and had more advanced technology. Yet they had not outgrown their agressive nature, nor their arrogance. None of their attributes necessarily made them more fit. Maybe the lesson was eventually what they could learn from humans, compassion and tolerance, even as we fail at that most of the time. By the end, the Ynaa have supposedly left Earth, but there's a possibility one or more have remained, since Mera is not the only one able to mimic human form successfully. I'm not sure if this is a stand-alone novel, or whether Turnbull has ideas for further exploration. If it is, there are ample clues for me to envision what might happen next. I'm interested in following Turnbull's career, whether he continues this story or moves on to something else.


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Cadwell Turnbull

June 18, 2019

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