Rivers Solomon describes themselves on their website as follows: Rivers Solomon is a dyke, an anarchist, a she-beast, an exile, a shiv, a wreck, and a refugee of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Fae writes about life in the margins, where fae’s much at home. So it is perhaps unsurprising that Vern, the protagonist of her third novel Sorrowland, fits many of these descriptors. Sorrowland is the story of Vern’s journey from runaway to outcast to fugitive to her own kind of hero.
When Sorrowland opens Vern is alone in the forest giving birth while also avoiding a person or creature who she calls “the fiend”. Vern has run away from a Black religious commune known as the Blessed Acres of Cain, a seeming utopia that hides dark secrets. In the forest she gives birth to twins who she names Howling and Feral and she begins to raise them in that place. But things change and the three need to go on the run, eventually connecting with others who try to help them. As this journey progresses though, Vern finds herself changing both mentally and physically, a result of the experiments run on the inhabitants of Cainland. These changes make her a bigger target but also give her the power to take back control of her world.
Sorrowland bases its action in the modern mythology of the superhero origin story Those powers also from a growing body of fantasy and science fiction that is fascinated with how fungi might communicate through the mycelial network (cf Star Trek: Discovery among others). But the themes of Sorrowland run much deeper than this – referencing a dark history of experimentation on Black communities including the Tuskegee Study and the work of James Marion Sims (also dealt with recently in Misha Green’s adaptation of Lovecraft Country). Solomon also tackles issues of gender and identity and, through an exploration of Vern’s power to connect with the dead, learning how to reconcile and work through the sins of the past.
Sorrowland, like Vern herself, attempts to carry a heavy load of both storytelling and theme. And it mainly succeeds. Solomon has crafted an engaging fantasy around a damaged and flawed individual who finds her strength and her purpose with the help of her children and others around her. Like many of the narratives that it draws from, Solomon ultimately delivers a story of finding inner strength, of coming to terms with a troubled and violent history and of redemption.