“Unfortunately, it wasn’t passion that held her like a lover never would. And it wasn’t passion that kissed her finally, so deep that all the breath in her body, rich with virgin life, was sucked out. Poor girl, she never saw death coming.”
Title: Willow Born
Author: Shanna Reed Miles
Young Adult Paranormal Fiction♦ 280 pages ♦ Published June 1, 2017
Willow Born is a timely look at the age-old problem of race-based power subverting justice in this compelling and deeply engaging young adult paranormal novel from first time novelist Shanna Reed Miles.
Sixteen-year-old Colette wakes up in the middle of a lake, and that’s not the weird part. The weird part is that she knows she was dead and is “waking up” from what should have been a permanent sleep. Luckily, two boys are out on the lake and rescue her, bringing her to an old house where Colette is shocked to discover that her childhood “imaginary friend” Raphael has come to life. To add to her confusion, one of the boys, Matt, keeps talking about “Thumpers” and pressing Colette to answer questions about herself.
With Raphael’s help, Colette is able to contact family members and learns that she has been dead for over fifty years and is now back in her hometown in small town South Carolina. A lot has changed–technology, especially–but what hasn’t changed is Colette’s empath status. In order to shield herself from psychic harm, she must wear gloves and erect mental walls as one touch tells her everything about what a person is experiencing. Another thing that hasn’t changed? Justice for black girls.
Apparently there’s been a spate of disappearances and murders of young black women in the area, and local law enforcement refuses to admit that it’s racially motivated or even that the disappearances could be connected. Colette can’t help but draw parallels between the modern world and similar disappearances from her childhood and adolescence. Upon enrolling in public school (her backstory: “homeschooled!”), she takes a forensics class where the semester project is to solve a cold case–so she decides to solve the mystery of her own death.
As she begins her quest, it becomes quickly apparent that her story is intricately connected to the current goings-on in town. Most shocking is the revelation that her mother was part of a secret magical group of black women called the Willows, and that Colette herself had been chosen to become a Willow as well. And in this auspicious time, where angels are seen on earth, and where religious evangelical groups called Thumpers are again on the hunt for witches, Colette must decide if she will claim her heritage or choose to lead the normal life that was stolen from her.
Excuse me for a moment while I scream a lot over how much I enjoyed this read….
OH MY GOD, IT WAS FLIPPING AMAZING AND EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT CAUSE HOLY COW MAGIC AND ANGELS AND GOTHIC AND ALL THE GOOD THINGS AND REALLY GO BUY IT NOW YOU WON’T REGRET IT AND IT WILL PULL YOU IN FROM THE VERY FIRST LINES GO GET IT NOW I PROMISE YOU’LL LOVE IT.
All right. Thank you for letting me get that all out. How long has it been since I posted a full review? Oh yeah. FOREVER. Thank you, Shanna Miles, for writing something so good that it broke me out of my blogging slump. You have created a lifelong fan-girl. Onto the review then.
There’s no denying the racial tension and power disparities that surface in this story. From the first chapter, main character Collette is trying to make sense of what is supposed to be a post-racist society. For example, one of the boys who rescues her is black, and one is white. Matt, the black teen, takes her to his house to recover, and Colette mistakenly thinks it’s the white boy’s house. “‘This is my house,’ [Matt] answers. ‘Why did you think it was his?’ ‘I-I just…well, he’s white.’ The words sound stupid, old and ridiculous in my mouth. I don’t know why.”
As a matter of fact, the very continued existence of the Willows hinges upon the idea that black bodies are more disposable and less valuable than the space that white bodies are. As one of the characters, Miss Collins, explains, “We are an aid organization founded by slave women to protect them from their masters.” In Collette’s day, black girls were being killed, black families being targeted, their homes being burned down, and the law was doing nothing. In the modern day, the same thing is happening, but no one in power seems to take seriously that these crimes are racially motivated, further increasing the risk to the black community.
This power differential is seen in multiple interactions throughout the book, but to me what stands out the most is the description of popular white girl Lilah, leader of a clique that call themselves “Bells.” The Bells wear oversized white pearl necklaces and white hair bows. And though everyone knows Lilah is awful and unfriendly, everyone also knows that she is untouchable. Everyone wants to be noticed by her. Everyone wants her to acknowledge their existence. Colette can’t help but notice this strange mix of emotion that seems to follow Lilah. “She breezes onto the patio on the balls of her toes in that dance walk she does and a mixture of cold and a feeling I can’t quite identify makes me shiver. Have we been waiting for her? It seems like we have, though that doesn’t make sense at all.” In this particular interaction, Lilah is sitting with a dark-skinned boy, and Colette is immediately uneasy: “Am I afraid for him? He’s dark as a starless night as he sits stiffly in the seat next to the pale girl. I glance for signs of unrest. I remember the days when a black boy could be murdered, freely for what he’s doing right now, sitting next to her. To me, it was just yesterday.”
Other supporting characters in the story help to build the idea of the power of community solidarity. They look out for each other, and support each other. They admit when they are wrong, admit when they’ve been foolish, and don’t shy away from honest communication. And speaking of honest communication, the author does an exquisite job of communicating collective trauma and its effect on a community. As girls continue to disappear or to show up dead, and the police continue to evade the idea of a serial killer, the tension is palpable.
Overall, the only criticism I have of the book is that there were a few typos. *shrugs* That may be quirks of the e-book formatting (yeah, I READ AN E-BOOK, YA’LL, IT WAS THAT GOOD THAT I DECIDED I COULDN’T WAIT TO GET A PAPER COPY), and some parts in the middle dragged a teeny bit, but honestly those instances were VERY MINOR. Not once did the narration feel “preachy” or affected; character arcs were executed nearly flawlessly; the plot advanced nicely; and the prose is gorgeous. Not to mention, the publishing company Rochelle and Reed is a small press out of Atlanta whose purpose is to advance “the attainment of literary joy for Black children.”
So go get a copy. It’s free on Kindle Unlimited and only $2.99 on regular Kindle. You can also get a Nook copy or order the paperback from Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Add it to your Goodreads, too. Really. Go ahead.
Have you read Willow Born? Reviewed it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
About the Author
Shanna Reed Miles is a novelist, book reviewer, and librarian living and working in Atlanta, GA. She is passionate about promoting diverse representation in literature.
She loves reading and writing paranormal romance and wrote her first book in elementary school. She is currently working on a historical fiction romance novel set in antebellum Boston and South Carolina.