Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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3 out of 5 tentative stars

This is the first of a 4 book series that started in the 90’s. It begins by telling us about Dawit. He’s an immortal, over 500 years old, from Ethiopia, but he began his life as a mortal man. After meeting a scholar and prophet named Khaldun, he underwent the ritual of the Living Blood. He and his Life Brothers usually live in a commune called Lalibela, but for now, he’s living in our world. His wife, Jessica, is an investigative reporter and their 4 year old daughter is the light of their life. Jessica has never seen her husband get sick, and he has no scars. When she starts to investigate nursing homes and a friend urges her to write a book about elder abuse, a strange murder in Chicago starts to unwind all of Dawit’s secrets. Khaldun has his eye on all the Life Brothers who live out in the modern world, and it’s time to bring Dawit home. This usually means dumping whatever life, even family, that he has gathered, but this time, Dawit doesn’t want to obey the call.

I truly don’t know where to go with this review or this rating. It’s one of the most unusual urban fantasies/paranormal stories (paranormal romance would be a misnomer) I’ve ever read, and I mean that in the best way. I’m not even sure what genre it fits. It’s more paranormal drama. It’s almost contemporary…. But it’s not written with literary flair, not that the writing isn’t good, better than a lot of paranormal or urban fantasy stuff out there, but it’s not dripping with metaphor. It’s SUPER heavy with symbolism and theme, don’t get me wrong – there is a lot to interpret here, if that’s your thing. It has elements of a thriller, especially for the last 1/3 of the book, but it’s slow pace doesn’t really fit that genre either. It’s character driven family drama FOR SURE but with paranormal elements.

It had things I like and want in a fantasy in a modern setting. Frankly, there just aren’t enough black families as the focus in the fantasy genre. Written by a black woman, this is an even rarer gem. Even the idea of an established family at the center of the story is unique. Paranormal or urban fantasy is full of lone hunters or supernatural oddities, alternative, secret societies hidden (or not) from the regular world. They’re usually about love affairs and caught up in sexual politics. There’s even an extended family in the mix (oh so many orphans in fantasy, regardless of the subgenre). All the characters are complex and feel like real people – that is the strongest part of the book. It’s based on African folklore – also not a common thing in modern fantasy. It ticks a lot of boxes but in the end, I didn’t connect. I don’t know why. I don’t mind a slow pace. I love a good family drama with lots of history. I saw the framework of well-developed characters, but I can’t say I connected with them, despite their complexity.  I wasn’t itching to pick it up. I didn’t get lost in it. Maybe part of it was the ho-hum world. It was very mid 90’s. It just felt like our regular world. The main character was a newspaper reporter. These aren’t the kinds of stories I usually pick up. The brightest light is probably little Kira, their 4 year old daughter. She seems to have a touch of the mystic about her, and it’s not made clear if that’s how children can be, or if it has anything to do with Dawit’s blood. She’s the best part of the story.

Like I said, the strongest part was the family drama. Jessica lost her father as a child, which is probably what drew her to Dawit’s ancient charm (I should add that she knows him as David). This was the 90’s, now it seems a little sketch that she started dating her professor – admittedly, it was when he was no longer her professor. But still. Other than that, what’s not to love? He’s gorgeous, can speak a zillions of languages, wrote the definitive text on the jazz movement, quit his teaching job to stay home and raise their daughter, writing books and translations instead. Unfortunately, he doesn’t support her career, keeps close tabs on her and was the fuqboi of the ages….

Yeah. I hate him. Dawit is the worst of the worst of the misogynists. He doesn’t understand why Jessica is wasting her time at the newspaper when it ‘means nothing’. ??? He wants her to be home, he wants to isolate his family so it is only the three of them. Talk about rage inducing. There’s one passage where they’re eating a staple African meal, and he is thinking about how Jessica used to complain the enjara (Ethiopian bread) was sour but “she adapted well.” WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? He doesn’t like anything that doesn’t focus on himself. You think he’s the ultimate jerk, but his buddy Mahmout comes along, and he’s just as bad and twice as zealous. They became Life Brothers together and tore up the brothels all through Africa and the middle east in the 16th and 17th centuries, but at some point, their paths diverged. Dawit continued to be enamored with mortals and real life, and Mahmout took to sitting crosslegged and fanboying over Khaldun. Dawit’s trip through the ages is told in some chapters. He had lovers and families before, and was pretty callous about the whole thing. He cared more about his own pleasures, admitting he probably left many bastards in his wake. But now, Mahmout has been sent to bring him in. And Dawit doesn’t want to go.

This is when things start getting really dangerous. The main tenet of the Life Brothers is that no one is supposed to know about them. No one. Anyone that might get an inkling is supposed to be taken care of. No women are to be initiated, as that would pass on the Living Blood indiscriminately (through pregnancy – Dawit’s offspring aren’t of the Living Blood as he shares no blood with them, like a mother would in the womb.) All he’s ever wanted is his wife and child all to himself, and he starts to think about bringing them into the fold. But he’s being watched, and what if Mahmout makes a move before Dawit can perform the ritual?

The plot kinda drags on for awhile and then the real chase and drama begin. Like I said, this has so much going for it. But I wasn’t tearing through it, dying to see what happened. I am going to read the next one (I have the whole series, which often is what gets me to keep reading – I am such a hoarder). The ending is kinda bittersweet but kinda happy as well. Which was good. I would still recommend this, as it doesn’t feel dated, and has so many positives going for it. I just wish I’d connected more and the plot had grabbed me. That’s why I’m torn. I didn’t love it. But I have no hate for this at all and I think this has a lot of wonderful things that modern fantasy could take a leaf from, if not an entire tree.

**In retrospect, I tried to start book two, and found it boring. I am keeping the books for now, but I want to read books I’m excited to read, not stuff that I feel I am reading because it’s required reading.

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