Note: This book was provided to us for review by the publisher.
In this Black Bead review, we’ll be taking a look at the first book in a new series by JD Lakey that follows the story of Cheobawn, a young girl with psychic abilities living in a conservative enclave on another planet. As far as the characters go, it could be read as the opposite of Lord of the Flies; a group of children bands together against the odds to go on an adventure outside of their Home Dome, faces lethal threats and returns closer because of them. The setting is really the diamond in the rough of this short sci-fi novel, but the characters Lakey creates are genuine and enthralling, despite buying into some common genre tropes.
Starting with the setting, I have to say that the world Lakey paints around the Home Dome is terrifyingly beautiful, with dangerous beasts and environmental pitfalls around every alien tree and shrub. Once outside the sterile safe environment of the Home Dome, everything springs to life, and as Cheobawn feels throughout the story, the very ambient buzzes with life force. The ability to read the ambient, or the communal psychic cloud surrounding all things, sentient or otherwise, is a gift bestowed only on the females of the enclave, seemingly through in-utero genetic modification.
She listened to the trees. Each one seemed different from the next, like a single voice in a choir… Together they were one organism draped like a living skin on the land from the edge of the snowfields high on the mountains all the way down to the infinite cliffs of the Escarpment to the south.
The Safe Haven surrounding the Home Dome is a psychic energy field produced by the Mothers of the enclave, or women involved in the politics of their community, to protect them from the many beasts and dangers of the planet they inhabit. Inside the Safe Haven, they have created a utopia, a matriarchal community with no conflict and communal resources. They share everything inside the compound, clothes, food, even relationships. The Mothers, at least those of higher status (First Mother, High Mothers, etc.), often have more than one husband or wife (or both), apparently to serve her and offer advice. There is so much background information hidden throughout these 149 pages that it is often difficult to decipher what is important to remember and what may have just been an artistic but unclear metaphor.
Little Mothers, or young girls within the enclave, are subjected to a test on their Choosing Day, at only three years old, to decide the strength of their “psi” abilities and the power of the Luck. If they pass, they get a bead in their “omeh” (a collar woven for each human north of the Escarpment with beads that are added as certain milestones and achievements are reached) that represents their power as an Ear. An Ear is a Little Mother that joins a Pack (or scouting/foraying party) to serve as a sort of psychic navigator, helping them find bounties and avoid traps and dangerous beasts, feeling the ambient for any sort of negative disturbance.
On Cheobawn’s Choosing Day, she failed her test and was rewarded with a Black Bead, a marker of her bad luck and untrustworthy psi abilities. Most Little Mothers burdened with a Black Bead are simply executed, but Cheobawn instead was allowed to live as a leper within the Home Dome, bullied and ignored by both adults and children within her community.
Cheobawn’s only non-familial connection within the Home Dome is a slightly older Little Mother named Megan, her oldest childhood friend. Brave, confident, and skilled as an Ear, Megan is often scouted by Packs looking for an Ear to guide their forays into the outside. However, Megan comes with unattractive terms: where she goes, Cheobawn goes as well. Finally, a Pack leader is willing to accept the burden of a Black Bead, and Cheobawn accompanies them on an adventure that turns out to be more than they bargained for.
Black Bead Review Summary
Final Rating 3 out of 5
The premise of Black Bead is wonderful, and it was a fun, short read I happily breezed through. It was refreshing to read new sci-fi with an original plot, on a new planet. Overall, I would give the book 3 / 5 golden gorgeberries, because of some issues that involve spoilers.
I would recommend the book to most sci-fi readers, especially those of the younger variety who are more attracted to the fantasy aspects of sci-fi than the science parts. Many parts of the book seem more magical than sci-fi, which was just a minor distraction, and the surplus of made-up fantasy words was only a bit annoying. If you’re toeing the line deciding whether or not the book is worth your time, read below. Caution: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Black Bead Review – Spoiler Territory
The biggest qualm I had with the Black Bead storyline is this: we are presented every horrible, negative thing that comes along with failing your Choosing Day test and being given a black bead on your omeh, but about halfway through the book, the readers learn that absolutely none of it applies to Cheobawn. Cheobawn happens to be the best Ear in the history of their Home Dome, possibly even their planet. She has abilities that far surpass any Ear before her, to the point she can glean energy from the very planet to fuel herself (as she was very young and attempting to run alongside the older children in her Pack and tiring quickly).
When she was three, she got into a fight with her mother-figure and intentionally failed the test to spite her, which in and of itself is a testament to her psychic abilities. Knowing this, her Truemother allowed them to give her a Black Bead and essentially ruin her life anyway. This giant issue pulled me out of the previously enthralling plot, and had me sitting up in bed going, “…really?” It just seemed like a cheap way to get some drama going, and when you compare it against the rest of the descriptions of the enclave and those who inhabit it, it seems very unlikely that the Mothers and Fathers would just doom her like that, as the Mothers at least could see inside her mind and determine her great powers through their own psychic abilities.
Despite all that, the world Lakey creates in the first book of the Black Bead Chronicles is worth visiting, at least for just one book. Whether or not you enjoy it enough to continue on in the series really depends on your tastes, but I would recommend most readers at least test it out!