Judith Woolcock Colombo,
The Fablesinger
(iUniverse, 2001)

Move over Nalo Hopkinson! Another great Caribbean-flavored work of fantastic fiction arrives on the scene! Kingston, Jamaica-born Judith Woolcock Colombo (now residing in New York City) uses her place of upbringing to provide the background for The Fablesinger, her excellent first novel. Employing the style and structure of a folktale, the story essentially follows the maturation and spiritual growth of a young woman from a wealthy family. The setting, located on an unnamed West Indian island, (no doubt inspired by Jamaica), serves to represent the cultural zeitgeist of the entire region.

The opening, a prologue, recounts the creation myth that forms the basis for the magical elements in the book. It tells how the Great Being Accompong's loneliness spawned the Great Shadow Sasambonsam, the Lord of Darkness, soon followed by the making of humans and their world. In this dualistic system, the Great Being and the Lord of Darkness war more or less constantly, this eternal conflict also mirrored by mortals. The followers of Accompong have the Mayal, benevolent healers and seers, while Obayifu and Obi, witch priests and priestesses who preach revenge and hate, represent the acolytes of the Shadow. The Mayal developed female shamans called Fablesingers to help their communities survive the persecution and oppression that found them enslaved and scattered far and wide.

The protagonist, Marcia, always feeling out of place (because of her uncanny gifts) with her upper-class plantation family, finds her true calling when the elderly Fablesinger who lives in the remote hills of the Island needs a disciple to inherit her powers and to continue the struggle against the Shadow. Marcia possesses the innate psychic abilities to battle the Obeah Man, this era's avatar of the Lord of Darkness. Thus, a classic conflict between good and evil, enacted in a contemporary setting becomes believable thanks to the author's skillful folkloric prose style enhanced with appropriate colloquial dialogue. The elderly Fablesinger (never named) and her clever shamanic techniques persuade the at-first reluctant and skeptical Marcia to leave her possessive boyfriend Peter and her estate behind to take up a way of life in which the magical and the mundane inextricably intertwine.

The bulk of the tale meticulously details the shamanic training, steeped in local color, necessary to become a Fablesinger while at the same time, the Obeah Man's attacks against the two women increase until the climactic showdown, thus keeping the plot exciting. Along the way, the reader gets treated to fascinating passages in which the older Fablesinger teaches Marcia about dreaming, the spirit world, their Owl power animal spirit guides and how to shape-shift into the form of that bird, herbal potions and incense, psychic shields, chants and ceremonies to contact higher orders of beings, and an intriguing form of meditation. This technique, called Katari, involves visualizing brightly colored lines of energy, analyzing them down to their basic components and using this method to help free the consciousness from the body in order to astral travel and to contact other minds. Marcia's growth as a Fablesinger also helps her mature in all other ways, growing into her womanhood and accepting responsibility and facing fears. Marcia even manages to have a positive lesbian relationship with Agatha, the headwoman of the villagers previously beneath the protagonist's notice.

The Fablesinger offers a compelling read because the vivid characters stand out against the equally colorful background. The old Fablesinger, a great shaman, evokes empathy for her willingness to relinquish her power and even more after years of solitude in order to save the world she loves. Marcia's doubts, growing confidence and eagerness to learn charms the reader. Even the antagonist, the Obeah Man, originally named Calvin, has an interesting back story of deprivation and abuse, plausible motivations for his pathological obsessions about using power to hurt and dominate. The way the author combines reality and myth to depict an intricate and thrilling battle between light and darkness has resonances both cosmic and also focused on one village on a Caribbean island. As above -- so below in this refreshing fantasy with its deliciously different setting and a cast of people of color who come in all varieties. Enter The Fablesinger's world of magic and mystery and be enlightened and entertained.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 21 October 2001

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