Umbras, Jakes, and Junzas – a review of FINDING ECHOES

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

Finding Echoes, a brand-new fantasy novella from writer Foz Meadows, is a story where death, grief, loss, and perseverance, are at the center of the tale. The story’s narrator is Snow Kidama, a young man who possesses a rare talent: he is a vox, meaning he can see and converse with umbras, the fading spirits of the dead. He makes his living relaying the last words and thoughts, and the occasional hidden knowledge, of the dead to the living. Sometimes, as in the novella’s opening chapter, he does it to let a mother know the truth of how her child died. Other times, he serves the purposes of the criminal gangs, the junzas, of Charybdis Precinct, a place marked by poverty, drug addiction, and crime, separated from the rest of New Arcadia by walls, guards, and a strictly enforced social hierarchy.

Recruited by his friend Lark for an illegal and dangerous but potentially profitable job that requires someone of his particular talents, Snow is thrown together with Gem who was once his best friend (and more) when they were just two young jakes in the local junza. For eight long years, however, Snow has believed Gem to be dead and now, the unexpected reunion and the perilous road trip they undertake together, rips up old wounds as they burrow deeper into the secrets beneath, and within, New Arcadia.

There’s a particular kind of readerly joy I feel when I crack open a fantasy story (whether it’s a novel, novella, short story, flash, or whatever) and find myself immediately enveloped by a finely woven fictional world where, even though I can only glimpse it through the first few sentences and paragraphs, I already feel the world stretch and flex and flutter enticingly beyond the text. These are the stories where a fictional universe’s language, slang, history, politics, religion, social mores, magic, biases and bigotry, are not info-dumped like a load of rocks off a truck, but rather skillfully stitched into the fabric of dialogue and plot, characters and descriptions, giving the story, and the world, texture, depth, and luster.

Finding Echoes is precisely this kind of story, and its opening paragraph is perfectly crafted to introduce us to Snow and his trade, and to pull us into the gritty streets of Charybdis Precinct:

“The dead boy’s umbra is three days faint, shot through with red and black. It crouches in the cramped and cluttered corner of this cramped and cluttered rookery, waiting for time or a vox like me to bring it some semblance of peace. Unlike the boy himself, the umbra bears no signs of violence, no cuts or blood or bruising. Its face is clear, its clothes as neat as they ever were in life. The Kithans would have me believe that what I see here is the soul of the boy whose body lies shrouded and cold three rooms away, poor minnow, but I don’t believe that. People lie, but umbras can’t: they’re shadows of the dead, not the dead themselves. The umbra whimpers: a high, thin note that I alone can hear.”

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    I love how deftly Snow’s trade as a vox is introduced here, together with his forlorn empathy, some specifics about the umbras (they can’t lie, for example), and the feel of the world Snow inhabits: a place cluttered and cramped, bruised by violence and poverty.

    As you might be able to tell from the quoted paragraph, this is not a fantasy tale concerned with royalty, palaces, and courtiers. Rather, it’s the kind of fantasy tale I prefer: a tale about the disadvantaged finding ways to live their lives in spite of injustice and deprivation, and in spite of the privileged, the rich goldplates of New Arcadia in this case, doing their damndest to keep others in the dark in more ways than one.

    Spun around the perilous quest Gem and Snow undertake, and the exploration of the society they live in—its dark corners and harsh edges—is the story of their relationship, seemingly torn apart years ago, though we soon realize that their bond, though tattered, still tugs at both of them. Turns out that love, even if you lose it in a seemingly hopeless place, is not easily crushed.

    Ursula K. Le Guin once poked fun at the kind of fantasy worlds that have “no economics and no social justice,” calling them “lazy-minded, recycled hokum,” and instead professed her love of fantasy “set in a genuinely imagined society and culture.” In Finding Echoes, Meadows most certainly delivers the latter, a genuinely imagined world where you can clearly sense how the social structure and hierarchy shapes the fate of everyone; a world where it takes skill and keenness, something Snow certainly possesses, to survive with your body and your soul reasonably intact.

    There’s a great interview with Meadows in Nino Cipri’s recent newsletter where they talk about Finding Echoes and about New Arcadia, and how it is a world they started building in their head years ago, “its details accreting through multiple failed attempts at telling the wrong sort of story until, at long last, I stumbled on the right one.” As a reader, I really appreciate that accretion of detail and the weight it gives the story as we move through the world in the company of Snow and Gem.

    On top of everything else I’ve already mentioned, Finding Echoes is quite simply a lot of fun to read. There’s suspense, heartbreak, queer love of more than one flavor, treacherous politics, swaggering thieves, as well as several ghosts, and while the story has plenty of grit and darkness in its depictions of addiction, greed, and cruelty, Meadows lets the light in too, leaving space for resilience, resistance, and even a bit of tenderness between two jakes.

    Finding Echoes is available now from Neon Hemlock Press.