Thursday, July 13, 2023

Cottonwood by R. Lee Smith


Someone told me this was the "softest" of R. Lee Smith's books and it's a good thing I can't remember who that person was, because I would give them such a talking-to. COTTONWOOD is a brutal book. A lot of Smith's books are, but COTTONWOOD is particularly insidious because it sneaks up on you. With books like THE LAST HOUR OF GANN and SCHOLOMANCE, you already know things are going to be bad. Those books plunge you into darkness and mockingly toss you a flashlight. Not COTTONWOOD. The heroine, Sarah, is so hopeful, so excited to work for an international organization that houses the aliens that came to her planet. She sings and hums like a Disney princess. She basically is a Disney princess. So tell me, what kind of horror do you think a Disney princess would feel if she walked into what she imagined would be a very grand adventure... only to find out that it's basically a concentration camp?

Yeah. That.


Lots of people have compared this to District 9 and I can see that. The author even addresses it in an author's note in the book (apparently she came up with the idea before the movie and then was loath to publish it because of the similarities to the movie). It's similar but also different. COTTONWOOD is a romance. It's a very dark romance, but it is a romance. It's also an allegory for, yes, concentration camps and the cruelty of N*zi scientists, and it's also a look into the differences between performative and true acts of justice. Sarah wants to help, but her ability to actually help changes and grows as she does. By the end of the book, she's a different person. She hasn't lost any of her goodness, but she's gained the ability to stand up for herself and not be so naive.

Parts of this book were beautiful. Sanford/Nk’os’a’knko was a darling. His son, T'aki was so cute. And Sarah is such a likable heroine. Even when she's being a doof. But this book is DARK. Much darker than I signed up for and if I had known how dark it was going to be, I probably wouldn't have signed up to read it at the moment because that's not really what I've been wanting to read. But like I said, COTTONWOOD sneaks up on you. I just read GANN and could handle it. I thought it would be more of the same. But this book did things that GANN didn't that I found really difficult to read. There is a lot of medical gore and medical torture that is described in pretty harsh detail. The dog dies. People close to the heroine die. Aliens are tortured (including children). Sexual abuse is described, including those of underage people. There's a rank callousness here that is hard to deny when we continually see headlines outlining more heinous crimes; R. Lee Smith sees humanity at its best and worst.

I liked this book a lot and think R. Lee Smith is a genius. But man, this book was miserable to read. I also felt the ending dragged. The "epilogue" portion was interesting but made the book feel rushed, and a couple of things happened that felt too neat. But by this point, I was so desperate for a happy ending that I didn't care. JUST GIVE ME MY HEA SO I CAN GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE. 🤡

I'm giving it a high four-star rating because, like I said, it was brilliant. Genius. Loved both the characters. But I didn't really enjoy it as much as I should have because the last 25% was miserable.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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