Here, as the world ends and dies and ends again, Mark Oshiro brings forth a daybreak of brilliant, hard-won hope.
In Each of Us a Desert, Oshiro moves away from the contemporary settings of their powerhouse debut, Anger Is a Gift. This is a propulsive fantasy novel, set in a vast desert and las aldeas that dot its expanse. Though they shift genres, Oshiro’s ability to blend beauty with brutality, to build love alongside grief, is as vividly drawn here as in their first book. They re-establish themselves as one of the most daring, purposeful, masterful authors writing today.
Xochitl is a cuentista. The people of her village, Empalme, partake in a ritual with her: they give her their story, and she returns it to the earth, to Solís. When they part ways, the villager is free from the guilt and weight of their story, and once Xochitl gives their story back to Solís, she forgets it. In this way, she’s been told, she helps her village. If she doesn’t, Solís sends pesadillas to plague them.
Once, Solís punished humanity. Furious with the greed, cruelty, and violence that plagued Their creation, They sent a flood of fire, La Quema, to scorch the earth. The few who survived, Xo has been told, emerged to need cuentistas: someone to take in the peoples’ truths and give them back. No one can hide their wrongdoings from Solís anymore. So, Xochitl does her duty to her people and to Solís. She’s been trained as a cuentista since childhood. This is how they survive. This, and only this, is who she was born to be.
Until someone tells her a story Xo doesn’t want to forget.
A story that endangers all of Empalme.
So, for the first time in her life, Xochitl refuses to return it.
She keeps the story. She tries to save her people. And when her choice catalyzes a devastating series of events, she has to keep more and more stories, horrified at the truths they reveal. What other nightmares has she had to forget? What does it mean for her people, that they can continue to give up the weight of their stories with no consequence?
Utterly alone and restless, Xochitl embarks on a quest for answers that takes her outside of her home, farther than she’s ever been. Across a vast, fantastical landscape, unforgiving and fraught with both terror, and strange, surprising freedom.
Xo is not alone for long. She meets others whose stories don’t mirror her own, but fit like disparate puzzle pieces, and she comes to understand just how much of her world she doesn’t know. How much of her life she never questioned.
Someone she never expected ends up coming closer into her orbit than anyone else. Emilia is the cold, distant daughter of a cruel, conquering man, but there is far more to her story than Xo knew. Their relationship is a slow-blossoming thing, emerging organically on their treacherous journey toward the truth.
Each of Us a Desert weaves an intimate odyssey, a propulsive, poetic prayer. This is a story about many things. This is a story about stories. The weight and physicality of what a narrative can be, its power and its potential and its poison. This is a story about truth and history, the lies we tell generations to reshape the future, the vulnerable work of un-learning, re-learning. This is a story about migration, a terrifying journey built on an ephemeral promise. This is a story about the healing of love and trust. This is a story about faith, and what it means to devote yourself to a power who does not prove their devotion back to you. This is a story about grief. Of memory and legacy. Of fighting to make a change for the better in this world, of planting seeds even if you won’t ever get to watch how they’ll grow into something that shades, and nourishes, and lives. This is a story that sings: you are more than who you were born to be. You are more than what you can do for other people, and you deserve to find out who that is.
This is a story about becoming.
Mark Oshiro makes magic in these pages. This is a wonder of a novel, ambitious and strange and ferociously beautiful. It’s spare and lyric, singularly atmospheric, it’s defiant and immersive and vividly sensory. It’s queer and nonbinary in the very fabric of its making, the shape of its quest, the fraught complexity of every character and scene, the genuine salvation of its romance. What it is to be seen, and known, and held: a love that doesn’t stop at loving who you are, but a promise to love you through transformation and transition. To love all the edges and selves you hold and can become. It feels like a book that emerged right out of Mark Oshiro’s heart, and I mean that viscerally: bloody and precious, intimate and life-giving and spilling over with love.
Here, as the world ends and dies and ends again, Mark Oshiro gives us a story that asks us why we tell stories. They remind us that a story is a thing with weight, with power, with purpose, with teeth. Each of Us a Desert left me feeling raw and healed at once. We all know that this has been a brutal year to say the least, and this book gave me such fervent, deliberate hope. A specific sort of hope that maybe can only be found in the darkest of places, or maybe it just feels all the more necessary now, though it always has been. This book gave me the catharsis of a good scream, a riot within a night full of terror and wonder and the shapes we find in the stars. Here we are, the world on fire as it’s been before, and there are still stories to tell. We are still stories worth telling, and we can’t choose everything, but we can choose how we tell them. We can choose who we are to each other.
A meditation, a salve, a reckoning, and a masterpiece.
Each of Us a Desert is available from Tor Teen.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.