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Book Review: Broken Fevers, by Tenea D. Johnson

Broken Fevers
Tenea D. Johnson
Trade Paperback
ISBN: 9781732638853
Rosarium Publishing, March 2021, 136 pgs

Reading a few stories in this collection, followed by a cursory search through a few respected SFF sites, would lead any rational person to a singular conclusion: The SFF community has a talent for overlooking seriously skilled storytellers. For whatever mix of reasons, Tenea D. Johnson’s work hasn’t found its way into the pro mags, nor into any of the long-standing, better known semi-pros such as Kaleidotrope or Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Reviewers have almost entirely failed to notice her. Even those dedicated individuals who track genre careers have let her down.

Let’s set the record straight: Johnson’s work went public in 2002, with four poems posted to the Reading Between A&B site. In 2003, she had short story “Deep Night” in Necrologue, edited by Helen Sandler. In other words, she’s been in the writing game quite a while. After looking through Broken Fevers, which offers an assortment of previously published work and original fiction for a total fourteen stories, I can’t help but feel that recognition is overdue.

First story “Bare” immediately pulls the reader in with good (but not overworked) turns of phrase and an interesting situation. A young girl is out of her comfort zone, as her first-ever girlfriend has invited her to see her at work—in a strip club. But Johnson overturns expectations, offering both surprise and important commentary in the compact space of a flash piece. In one swift move, she excises the male gaze and invokes a wonderful horror sensibility.

Johnson flexes her science fiction chops with pieces like “Foundling.” Petal is one of the best in the world at her job: She works in a center which teleports victims out of harm’s way during disasters. As driven as she is, her perfect record is smeared when her attempt to rescue a child from a collapsing building fails. But Petal knows something is off: She’s checked the vectors, the variables, the Boolean calculus. When she starts her own investigation, she lands in deeper trouble. What’s great about this story is not just the cool application of a familiar trope, but the intense layers infused into the piece, which uses science fiction to explore a complex web of cultural inequities.

As strong as “Foundling” is—and, make no mistake, Johnson is a versatile, intelligent author; there are many strong stories in this book—my favorites are Johnson’s forays into mythic/folkloric narratives. “Lopsided World” is a great, very short story wherein a brother and sister hold up the sky on poles. One day, the brother, Songo, drops his end, leaving Libanja to hold up the sky on her own. Myth meets modern and together they form a vibrant metaphor, delivered with just the right amount of emotional resonance. Ultimately this story accomplishes, in just over a page, the kinds of things many writers struggle to do with thousands of words to spend.

“Sugar Hill” is a definite standout. Ts’ai-Ho is an immortal on the hunt for her missing fairy friend, Doren. Said friend left an ominous message on Ts’ai-Ho’s answering machine, and the immortal has to find him before he harms himself. But the two have been estranged for a while, and she isn’t entirely sure how to find him anymore. This is the kind of modern-meets-myth story I have seen so many people try to write but flounder: filled with awesome ideas, moments of wonder, and sprinkled with just the right amount of bold humor. But because the author is Tenea D. Johnson, it’s also much more than that. The writing is unflinching, it takes risks, and the glittery ideas are part of a deeper story. This piece is a beautiful meditation on friendship, using the truths we share and the things we hide as a focal point. It’s also a thought-provoking treatment of conflicts of cultural identity, especially in terms of reconciling cultural pasts with the not-always-pleasant present. All told, it’s really breathtaking work.

As a community, we should be grateful to editors such as Brandon Massey, who published Johnson in Whispers in the Night; the editorial team of Kinitra Brooks, Linda D. Addison, and Susana Morris who published her in Sycorax’s Daughters; and Bill Campbell, who, working with Nisi Shawl, published her in Stories for Chip. As readers, we should wonder what other wonderful work we might be missing, and if the visionaries who saw the merit in Johnson’s writing might also see merit in other authors equally worthy of reading. More important to this review, Campbell has published Johnson’s work again, and together they offer us the concentrated dose we need, the medicine we didn’t even realize we were missing, wrapped up in a book called Broken Fevers.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2022 recipient of SFWA’s Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award. He is also a 2021 and a 2022 World Fantasy Award Finalist, a 2022 Locus Award Finalist, and a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards: for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes, run workshops, and been a guest for Clarion West, the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Cascade Writers, Augur Magazine, and more. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Find him on Twitter @arleysorg. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.