Review: ‘Amari and the Night Brothers’, by B.B. Alston

The latest President of the United States was only just sworn in this week, but I was delighted to see him make a cameo appearance in the pages of this new kids’ book; a headline in ‘Rumours & Whispers’ magazine reading, “Newly elected US President faints at first Supernatural Affairs briefing”. Perhaps that means Amari and the Night Brothers is taking place now, in January 2021, the very month it’s being published. It really wouldn’t come as a surprise: this is a good old-fashioned slice of escapism, but it also feels decidedly contemporary.

In that case, somewhere out in the Rosewood Projects, Amari lives an unassuming life with her nursing assistant mother, and Quinton, the older brother she hero-worships. Except when the novel begins, Quinton’s already been missing for six months – perhaps because of some mysterious business he’s been involved with – and Amari is probably the only person who still believes he’s alive. She’s getting bullied at school for being a Scholarship kid with a difficult home life. But one day she gets an invitation – to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs…

Unlike Joe Biden, Amari doesn’t faint on discovering the strange things going on behind the scenes of the modern world. She doesn’t really have time to: it feels like a fresh invention arrives on nearly every page. It’s not exactly a new trope in town, the secret ‘World Around the Corner’ (to borrow the title of Maurice Gee’s wonderful novel of faery folk in modern New Zealand), but it’s just great fun to see B.B. Alston relishing the imaginative possibilities, with throwaway references to man-eating stalactites, person-sized trenchcoat-wearing ants, carnivorous thunderclouds and the International Railways of Atlantis.

Amari needs to learn about this world fast, because she’s trying to rescue her brother, and to do that she must become a Secret Agent for the Bureau and she’s competing against the children of ‘Legacy families’, wealthy, well-versed in the supernatural, and arrogantly entitled. Amari finds herself back in the situation she experienced at high school: stigmatised and bullied for being working-class, a ghetto kid. Not only that, but the supernatural world has its own analogue for the racial prejudice that Amari has spent her life dealing with. I won’t spoil the details of that, but it’s one reason Amari feels like more than just another ‘kid becomes magical apprentice’ novel.

Illustration by Godwin Akpan

Alston doesn’t just deploy a metaphor or two in treating this theme: he makes those difficult experiences instrumental to Amari’s character, self-deprecating and wary at first, becoming increasingly determined, confident and daring. Throughout the novel, characters try telling Amari she doesn’t belong in this realm of privilege and power, but she grows increasingly resolute. At other times – still no spoilers – she is offered power of a sort, with certain moral compromises which she refuses to make. One glorious moment has a character look deep into Amari’s ancestry, finding some who were enslaved and others who fought for universal freedoms. The emotional temperature of the book feels very contemporary: like Amari’s aura, which her best friend can innately read, it lights up the book in myriad colours.

Interestingly, I found the novel’s climax a tiny bit underwhelming – perhaps because it’s clear this is the first in a series, with more confrontations with the Night Brothers (and who knows what else) to follow – but the culmination of the book, and of Amari’s journey toward her destiny, was really exciting. The energy of Alston’s novel is really in the interactions of its characters, deftly portrayed. The secrets Amari keeps; the friends she encourages; the kids who bully her and how she responds; the Bureau agents who doubt her and those that believe in her; everything about her Mama (more of her in the next book, please). This is a big-screen, 3D, popcorn-munching romp of a novel, painted deliberately on an international canvas, but what really sets it apart are the small, closely observed gestures of its characters, and the vibrant details that build its world. It’s going to be an utter delight for readers this year, and I can’t wait to see what happens to Amari next…

Amari and the Night Brothers is out this week in hardback from Egmont: you can order it from Waterstones here, or buy it from your local independent. The World Around the Corner is out of print at the moment, but second-hand copies are out there to be had…

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