Review by Heather Squire
When it comes to science fiction and fantasy, I’m a total noob. Not that I’ve been avoiding the genres in particular, but I’ve almost exclusively been more of a social science/history/political theory non-fiction reader for the last twenty years. But as my politics have evolved, I’ve started seeking out new sources of knowledge that point towards possibility and reveal deeper truths, which eventually brought me to Jelani Wilson’s fantastic The Ballad of the Bladesinger, the first in Wilson’s Space Wizards! series.
The Ballad of the Bladesinger arrived in my mailbox as the fascist campaign to overturn the 2020 election was heating up. It’s midnight blue cover featured a gorgeous illustration of Xenobia the Blue, the Space Wizard and Bladesinger with ultraviolet eyes and a “fluffy blue bloom of kinky curls” (illustrated by Antoine Adams). While starting a new book at any time during the pandemic has been a challenge, Wilson’s inspired design choices and love for human details made me excited to jump right in and explore the universe of the Space Wizards. It didn’t hurt that I know the author through a leftist MMA group, so I knew I’d be stepping into battle with a character having formidable fighting skills and a deep commitment to liberation - a real hero for the ugly historical moment we find ourselves in.
The most challenging part of reading this book as a noob was the introduction and prologue where the background and setting are laid out. Not that the writing was obtuse or too technical, but because it required me to build a whole new universe in my imagination and that takes letting go of many of the rules and stories of the world we actually live in. So I read these opening parts a couple times until I felt like I had a good grasp of what was going on: the Space Wizards’ universe is dominated by a ravenous capitalist regime bent on subordinating every civilization in its path. The Space Wizards attempted a revolution, failed, and were scattered across a cluster of star systems.
We meet Xenobia the Blue a dozen years later, living incognito as a backup singer for a famous cyborg performer. Still mourning the loss of her partner and fellow Space Wizard Zerique, she has taken refuge in anonymity and song until her identity is revealed at a diamond-studded gig for the regime’s elite. At this point I was so sucked into the story that I finished the rest of the book in one afternoon and could not wait to find out what happens next. Wilson’s rich emotional textures bring Xenobia’s complexity alive in a way that I didn’t expect would make the intensity of her fight and escape come to life. It reminded me of the cycle of intensity followed by dormancy that those of us involved in the struggle for liberation have all experienced. Time passes - connection visits and leaves, we grieve lost loved ones and lost opportunities, and when we are called back to the streets in protest we are different from who we were when we first got involved.
The Ballad of the Bladesinger is an exciting and beautifully-written novella that offers escape from these dark days of isolation and immobilization, as well as an accessible entry point into the world of sci-fi, fantasy, and Afrofuturism. I cannot wait until for the next episode of Space Wizards to come out, but in the mean time you can check out more of Jelani's work at Pages Without Paper, and follow him on Instagram (follow Pages Without Paper on Facebook too!).
Jelani Wilson is a speculative fiction writer, itinerant educator,
wildly inconsistent blogger, and nerdy introvert.