The Tombs; Or: Don't Use the G-Word Even If You Say It's "Historical"

TW: rape, assault, slurs

Certain plot points or story contrivances never fail to catch my attention. Victorian-era New York is one of them (although can I really call it Victorian if that eponymous monarch ruled a completely different country?), and historical views of mental illness is another. While I was browsing Edelweiss, no mean feat on their new website, which is basically a word spirograph, I saw a book called The Tombs. The intricate cover caught my eye, and the blurb mentioned a secret prison inside the infamous New York hospital known colloquially as "the Tombs." I was, to put it mildly, stoked.

However, I felt completely lost in this world that was 99% historical and 1% steampunk. It's also a world where characters toss around the g-word (G***y or g***y) with abandon and where the author defends her use of it in the end note. And it's not just that--when it comes to every ethnicity and background in this book, it's handled in a way that made me cringe so hard that it was like a full-body workout. There is a lot that's racist here, and it's hard to even cover all of it.

Ever since her mother was sent away to the prison beneath the Tombs, the improbably-named Avery Kohl has worked over twelve hours a day in a factory in order to support herself and her father, who has taken to drink. Her former rich friends have completely cut her out of their lives, and she's left with only her falcon, Seraphine, and her childhood best friend Khan.

Avery, however, is Not Like Other Girls her age. She has some special skills...

One of them is that she can identify any soldier's battalion and unit by his army insignia:

"I looked at the soldier's threadbare forage cap. It had a red triangular badge next to a pin of crossed sabers. 'Forth Corps Cavalry, Division One?' I asked. He opened his eyes and gave me a long look. Then he lifted his chin. 'At your service, ma'am.' "

I just ... what does this have to do with anything? Does Avery go around guessing veterans' postings for fun? It makes her seem a right awful snob, is what it does.

Her other skill is an inherited one: she can see the auras of other people, good, evil, or neutral, and then use that power to heal. But the first time Avery releases her power, she causes a massive explosion in the metal factory where she works with other down-and-out kids of Brooklyn. Her rage, prompted by the foreman's savage beating of a young boy, causes the very air to explode, sending heavy metal rods flying.

In order to better understand her power, Avery sneaks off to the Tombs despite having promised her father she would never go there. Her mother is unsurprisingly weak, but manages to tell Avery that she is a healing Seer and must find Niko before the Evil Doctor bursts in and tries to take Avery captive. Luckily, Khan shows up in the nick of time to rescue her. Fancy that.

From this point on, the sheer improbability of the narrative, coupled with the really offensive way that Avery stubbornly referred to the Roma, convinced me that this was not a book I would--or could--finish. Honestly, the plot really isn't that interesting, and its reliance on the Roma as this mystical fetishized group made me feel ill. And angry. Not to mention the way Avery talks about Khan.

Actually, let's start with Khan. When Avery's father was in the Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War, he saw a family of enslaved persons fleeing and rescued them against orders. While doing so, he sustained injuries and destroyed his balloon, leading to his discharge. This works Avery into a snit, for she feels that this literal white savior act should have netted him some kind of award. But Khan and his grandmother are grateful and remain friends with the family. Avery, however, does not treat him as a friend, or even as a human. To her, Khan is alternately a pet and a source of hormonal lust. She exotifies him to the extreme:

"His grandmother was systematically tattooing Khan in the ways of the old world. In his tribe--descendants of the black pharaohs of ancient Egypt--he would have been a prince."

My brain is trying to fumble its way through this, and it's not having much success. Let me preface the following by stating that I am certainly no expert on the Atlantic slave trade, nor am I particularly knowledgeable about genealogical lines in northeast Africa. If you know more about this than I do, and if I'm reading this entirely incorrectly, please tell me. But this is what I reason:

If Khan is descended from the "black pharaohs," those would be the Kushite kings of Egypt. The Kingdom of Kush was south of Egypt, on the eastern knob of the African continent, in what is now the Sudan. And while the Sudan has a long history of slavery, I do not find any explicit references to the people being involved in the Atlantic slave trade to the Americas. Why does Khan have to be "royalty"--is it to make Avery feel better about her feelings for him? Does it make Khan "good enough" for her because he should have been a prince? One from a "faraway ancestral land" (I am not making this up)? One who gives her, as a present, a "primitive Nubian dagger with a curved blade." Yeah, I don't think that white slave traders would have let Khan's grandparents keep a dagger with them. Particularly when people were stripped naked and packed into ships where they had to wallow in human filth for months. Nowhere to hide a dagger. He also has a miniature kaleidoscope filled with seeds to be planted once his mother was free. Again, how?

No. No no no.

Okay, so let's hop over to another mind-boggling component of this story: the names. I understand that as a writer, you may not wish to name your heroine "Jane" or "Mary" or "Elspeth" even though those names were, statistically, extremely popular in the time period in which you've set your book. Even though this is a sort of steampunk twist on Victorian times, I cannot imagine that a bourgeois family would name their only daughter "Avery" after her grandfather. Avery is a relatively modern name for a girl, and it jolted me out of the story when she was first introduced. Khaneferre (Khan's full name) is that of an Egyptian Pharaoh of the 13th Dynasty, whereas the Kushite kings from which Avery says he is descended were the 25th Dynasty. Please note that I am no Egyptologist, but I can perform an internet search fairly well. Why would Khan's parents give him an Egyptian name that is unrelated to their ancestors?

Then there is the "diversity" of Brooklyn, as demonstrated by Avery's coworkers at the welding factory.

Let's see, there's Geeno, the small Italian boy whose parents set foot in America and promptly died of consumption. The foreman at the factory is "Roland Malice, a Polish ex-boxer." Being slightly Polish myself, "Roland Malice" is a very strange name choice for a Polish man, unless it's supposed to be "Malaczkowski" or something.  Then there are Leo and Oscar. Avery explains, "Leo and Oscar were both twelve. Leo was a crackerjack-smart black boy, and Oscar, our lovable, mischievous Gypsy boy."

Well, there's a lot to unpack here. Let's start with the merely improbable and strange, and not flat-out offensive: why is "Gino" spelled "Geeno"? "Geeno" is not Italian. And how did his parents "suddenly" die of consumption (TB)? It's not the sort of disease you contract and then suddenly drop dead on the spot like, say, typhoid or the plague. And if they did have TB, how did they pass immigration control in the first place? Anyway, then we have the assurance that the second black boy in the book is smart. Oh good. I'm so glad. It's like when people say "Oh, you're so ____ for a ____ person!" where the second blank isn't the word "white." And then we have Oscar, the Roma boy who the author refers to consistently as a capital G g-word.

In case you didn't know, the word g***y or G***y is considered a racial slur. I know you probably grew up thinking that it meant "romantic" or "boho" or something like that. I get it. But Romani people consider this a slur, so don't use it. Also, don't argue about not using it. If people say it is hurtful and a slur, you should believe them and then stop using it.

As the book goes on, Avery is told by her mother to go to the Roma camp to seek guidance on how to use her aura seer powers. Avery then reminisces about her thirteenth birthday, when her parents took her to the camp for Midsummer's Eve. She saw a boy performing a mesmeric trick on people in the crowd and felt drawn to him. As they conversed, he told her "I can make you do anything I want," then "I will make you kiss me ... Right now." Instead of kneeing him in the groin because he's making sexual assault sound cute and romantic, Avery told him "You can't make me do something I already want to do" and then they kiss. She is thirteen, mind, and he is definitely older. This is an extremely disturbing romanticization of rape culture.

When Khan brings her back to the camp, Avery is momentarily jealous of Katalina, the girl with "feline grace" who has obviously seduced her precious Khan, but then Katalina takes her to meet Hurricane, a "mystic." Hurricane is a young girl who does sage-smudging to clear the room of negative energy, touches Avery's third eye, and does a quick Reiki scan of her body. Evidently, preteen girls in the 1880s were exposed to both New Age mysticism and appropriation of other cultures' religious beliefs in a sort of spiritual buffet. Anyway, Hurricane instantly shows Avery how to use her aura power, and then informs her that by kissing that boy a few years ago, she has doomed him to die.

Okay, look, first of all, he was making advances toward her and being all Kylo Ren-rapey. He threatened to force a thirteen-year-old girl to kiss him against her will.

I stopped reading here. As I skimmed to the end, I noted that Avery never changed the way she referred to Indigo and his family. The only reason I can think of to even include the slur would be in a misguided attempt to show character growth, i.e. Avery uses the word but then Indigo shows her why it's hurtful, so she stops. But even then, that's a flimsy excuse for using racially and ethnically charged language in your book. The author's end note justifies her use of the word in a fun example of delusion:

"However, today many Romani people consider the word Gypsy to be a derogatory term, and Roma is often used to refer to all Romani groups. But in 1882, when my story takes place, the word gypsy was most common, and the Romani people referred to themselves as Romany or Romany travelers. I have opted to use Gypsy with a capital G to emphasize that it is a proper noun and not a behavior or a slur. I've used Romany when members of the group refer to themselves."

I have many problems with this justification. Logically, it makes no sense with how Avery refers to other ethnic groups. If the author was truly being historically accurate, why is her foreman "Polish" and not a "polack"? Why are Jewish people, Italian people, and black people referred to in just those ways, and not with the slurs commonly used back then? Essentially, using only the g-word shows white people's stubborn insistence on using whatever words they like because they "sound good" and ignoring how hurtful they may be. However, my very favorite part of this little note is the "capitalization makes it not a slur" reasoning. Wow. I had no idea! So if people just capitalize the n-word then it's not a slur?

I really don't know what else to say. There are so many disparate elements in the story that I doubt I would have enjoyed it had there been no slurs used at all. An aura seer with a super-random pet falcon has to work as a welder in order to feed her father, who became an alcoholic clockwork-prosthetis creator after mom got sent to a mental hospital.

Instead of being a snappy period mystery, The Tombs ended up being an ill-conceived alternate history novel that assaults the reader with racial slurs and utterly failed attempts at being diverse.

I received an ARC of this title from Edelweiss.



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