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Nathan’s review of Lost Ark Dreaming by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

The tl;dr: Lost Ark Dreaming is a near-future climate dystopian (kind of) novella that doesn’t do anything particularly new with its plot or worldbuilding (it is vertical Snowpiercer), but expertly uses that familiarity to experiment with storytelling style and theme. Cli-fi and dystopian fiction have been the purview of one single group of authors for far too long in American publishing, and it is exciting to get these kinds of stories from a wide variety of perspectives and viewpoints. This is different from Okungbowa’s epic fantasy series, and I think it is the more exciting entry point for new readers. Highly recommended.

Cover of Lost Ark Dreaming

 

My full review:

Novellas can sometimes be hard to judge/review, especially for those of us who predominantly read novels. I think you have to approach novellas with a different eye because it doesn’t have all of the extra space that a full novel does. Novellas often cannot balance character, plot, worldbuilding, and themes in the same way a novel does, and so tend to emphasize 1 or 2 of these attributes (with, in my experience, character and theme being given precedence).

In Lost Ark Dreaming, Suyi Davies Okungbowa emphasizes the themes of his work, which will delight readers looking for a challenging look at global politics, power structures, oppression, and climate change, but may disappoint readers who are more attracted by the worldbuilding premise from the blurb.

Lost Ark Dreaming is set in the near future of Nigeria after global climate change has inundated most habitable dry land with ocean water. Humanity’s solution is to build gigantic towers that rise out of these new oceans, where the rich and powerful get to live at the top and the poorest live at the bottom (even into the windowless/submerged parts of the tower). This creates a clear class divide – a vertical Snowpiercer or Silo without the cultural memory loss. Enter Yekini and Tuoyo, two women from the “lower levels” who need to spring into action to save these socially and physically divided towers from themselves.

In terms of the wordbuilding and plot themselves, everything feels just a tad underdeveloped and thin. The entire plot itself can be summarized in just a few sentences, and when Okungbowa was just focusing on the action set pieces I was a tad bored. The world and plot felt generically dystopian; I mentioned Snowpiercer and Silo above, and in terms of the actual sense of place and plot there wasn’t all that much distinguishing Lost Ark Dreaming from those other properties. And, because Okungbowa had less room to work here, this comes off as a lesser version of that kind of story in terms of its worldbuilding and plot. There are some really enticing developments about 2/3 of the way through the novella, but by then there are only around 50 pages left and the climax is forced to move at warp speed, robbing the last few pages of the emotional weight that Okungbowa was going for.

Having said that, what makes this novella worth picking up are its storytelling style and themes. If we can prevent ourselves from reducing Lost Ark Dreaming down to just its core plot, there are a lot of artistic flourishes and movements here that kept by enthralled and turning the pages. This is a story that shines in the way that it is told, and the messages it moves to relay.

Okungbowa plays with style, interjecting his “traditional” prose third-person limited narration with poetry, blog posts, newspaper articles, government documents, and more. These enrichen and enliven the world of Lost Ark Dreaming, giving it texture that the “regular” chapters seem to lack. We get a better sense of how this world came to be, how the power hierarchy works, and the culture of these a bit more. They are also just beautifully written and conveyed, and Okungbowa’s command of style and voice is marvelous here. Novellas are one of the best formats to experiment with different storytelling styles (while still having the space to push the traditional narrative), and in that regard Okungbowa utilizes the format to its full potential.

Lost Ark Dreaming also quite viscerally condemns power structures and the oppression of lower classes. What particularly struck me, as a white American, is how many of these similar stories (Snowpiercer, Silo, etc.) come from the white perspective. Heck, almost the entirety of post-apocalyptic media comes from white perspectives and are about white people facing discrimination and oppression (The Hunger Games as just one clear example). While I was reading Lost Ark Dreaming, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which we don’t hear these stories from the people who would be the most impacted by them – people living outside of the so-called “Global North”. Perhaps this is because it is only affluent white people who need to imagine futures that are so dystopian, which the current world order works to create dystopias all over the place. When Okungbowa confronts the impacts of climate change in Lost Ark Dreaming, he doesn’t hold back from condemning the local political structure’s role in the managing of the towers, but also how the global power players created the circumstances for which something like this can emerge. If you are burned out by cli-fi or dystopians, still give this one a go because it comes from a perspective rarely represented in the genre (in traditional American publishing at least).

Okungbowa further explores issues of oppression and social memory – and how what we THINK we know may just be deep-seeded propaganda that has become so naturalized that we don’t even realize its propaganda anymore. But discussions of these ideas are starting to get into spoiler territory, so I’ll just leave it at that. If these are things you like explored in your sci-fi, then you’ll be increasingly enamored as the book goes on.

In general, Lost Ark Dreaming sacrifices its plot, worldbuilding, and a bit of its character work in favor of novel and exciting storytelling styles and exploration of prescient themes from a perspective that isn’t given enough of a space in traditional American publishing. And I think that this is a good thing. There are so many books published each year that have stupidly complex plots and Robin Hobb-level character arcs. Not every book (and especially novella) needs to be judged to those terms. We need space to explore non-Western storytelling styles, experimental prose, and books with thematic heft to them.

Lost Ark Dreaming is an exciting novella that all climate fiction readers should pick up ASAP. I would definitely read more from Okungbowa doing shorter, experimental works like this, whether set in this world or something completely different.

 

 

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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