From Moroccan gangland to the London party scene, a man named Taggert is on a mission to save his lost love's daughter from a supervillain club promoter. Luckily, Taggert has some tricks up his sleeve, like the ability to control bodies (including his own) on a molecular level. But that may not help him when he's going up against illusionists, mind readers, animal controllers, and other strangely gifted individuals. With Ayize Jama-Everett's novel The Liminal People (Small Beer Press), you'll be sucked into a fast-paced story about superpowered people struggling for control of the underground cultures they inhabit. It's the story that failed TV series Heroes should have been.
Taggert is one of those satisfyingly ambiguous heroes who is never clearly on the side of right or wrong. We first meet him in Morocco, in the middle of a drug deal gone bad, fighting his enemies by using his powers to put their snipers to sleep and to distract their goons by making them piss in their pants. It's a fantastically creative scene, and illuminates the major strength of Liminal People, which is Jama-Everett's ability to turn superhero clichés into novelties. When Taggert leaves Morocco and wants to blend into wealthy British society, for example, he controls the melanin in his body and lightens his dark skin. It's a pretty slick move that actually works as a plot device, while also taking a swipe at the color of class privilege.
Looming over Taggert's life is a shady figure named Nordeen, a big time drug dealer in Morocco who is possibly hundreds of years old and seems capable of reading everybody's minds. He's made Taggert an apprentice of sorts, inducting him into his gang and occasionally sending him out on side missions to eliminate other "liminal" people whose powers have gotten out of control. While Taggert struggles to understand Nordeen's true purpose, as well as the full extent of his powers, he gets a call for help from Yasmene, the "only woman he's ever loved." Yasmene is a fire-starter, but has muffled her powers in order to pass in ordinary society, where she's married a white guy and raised a daughter in a posh region of London.
Unfortunately, Yasmene's daughter - whose powers are just coming online - has gotten mixed up with a superpowered club promoter who aspires to be Nordeen's equal. Now she's disappeared. With Nordeen's ambivalent blessing, Taggert packs for London on a mission that takes him deep into the Western world he thought he'd left behind forever when he moved to Africa. In many ways, Taggert's perspective on middle-class London is reminiscent of Octavia Butler's novels Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, where Africans (and, later, African Americans) discover their latent telepathic powers and use them in secret to create a group whose power challenges the wealthy elites around them. But Liminal People is not about race, any more than Heroes was. It's simply told from the point of view of people of color, which offers a perspective that's still rarely seen in superhero stories.
Propelled by the mystery of Yasmene's daughter, as well as the greater mystery of the liminal peoples' powers, Taggert cuts a violent swath through London's subterranean cultures. You won't be able to put the book down, though there are moments of frustrating unevenness in the writing. Jama-Everett offers contradictory accounts of Nordeen and his motivations, sometimes even in the same chapter. And often Taggert's relationships with women are two-dimensional: Either he is having sex with them/staring at their breasts, or he's protecting them paternalistically. He's also the kind of guy who insults his male enemies by calling them "faggots," and his female enemies by calling them "ugly." There's a kind of narrative whiplash you have to endure with this character, as if Jama-Everett can't decide whether this guy is headed for enlightenment or is just an old-school thug. In other words, The Liminal People is a classic first novel, full of promise and problems.
Despite these issues, the novel is a damn good read. It's a smart actioner that will entertain you while also enticing you to think about matters beyond the physical realm. It will be especially welcome if you are one of those people, like me, who was riveted by the first season of Heroes, with its multiracial cast and intriguing new perspective on superpowers. This novel is the second season we always wanted.