[REVIEW] “Identity is a Constant Negotiation and Struggle for a Self-Worth Fighting For: A Review of Jason Erik Lundberg’s A Fickle and Restless Weapon” by Quenntis Ashby

{Written by Quenntis Ashby, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Jason Erik Lundberg, A Fickle and Restless Weapon, Epigram Books, 2020. 456 pgs.

Jason Erik Lundberg’s debut novel is a fascinating and uplifting narrative examination of identity set in the fictional Republic of Tinhau. A Fickle and Restless Weapon is an arresting work of speculative fiction that spans 17 years and features three characters imbued with just enough power and determination to make a difference in a world where the main characters go up against an insidious government (gahmen) and the Range, a horrifically destructive weapon that strikes with random deadliness.

Lundberg helps the reader enter the world of the novel by providing two epitaphs, a map and a list of descriptive section titles.

The first epigraph admonishes the reader to “Dream strange things and make them look like truth”. The quote is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, itself a book about the politics of honour and reputation, an unwed mother, secret sins, public shaming, guilt and repentance. These are some of the issues Lundberg explores in A Fickle and Restless Weapon with his fecund imagination and inventiveness.

The title, A Fickle and Restless Weapon, is taken from the second epigraph, a longer quote from a Buddhist text called The Dhammapada. It is a wonderfully enigmatic indication of the danger and thrilling action to come while setting a more literary tone.

A Fickle and Restless Weapon consists of five parts, split into nine sections. Each section uses Nine Inch Nails song titles as headings. These structural aspects provide an important framework and context for the reader to experience the novel. The reader will find it helpful to return to the map, the epitaphs and the contents page to navigate the rich and layered world of the novel.

Of the novel’s three main characters, “Zed” Quek Zhou Ma has the most dramatic character arc, undergoing fundamental changes along every step of his journey. He has the most to lose and the most to learn. This is undoubtedly Zed’s (nicknamed Zuma at times) story.

There is constant surveillance and political danger, the inexpressible grief of unresolved trauma, profound loss of privacy and freedom, and the clear corruption of power at the highest levels of gahmen. Yet the strongest theme is that of identity, and it echoes throughout A Fickle and Restless Weapon on many levels; the public and the private, the cultural and the political. 

A cast of colourful (and memorable) characters populate the novel, adding to Tinhau’s complexity. The Republic of Tinhau becomes its own quirky character in this way—a believable and Blade Runner-esque future Singapore. Vahid, Zed’s creative partner, is a master puppeteer with four arms. He creates and controls his puppets, giving them their unique identities by sculpting and moving them with his special abilities (he is gifted, a swee). Vahid has created this artistic identity for himself, just as Zed has created his identity as a world-famous performer with his special ability to become anyone on- (and off-) stage. Coming back to Tinhau for his sister’s funeral is just one of many catalysts that keep pushing Zed to suffer a constant and serious crisis of identity.

Green-skinned Tara wants to live a modest life of peace, purpose, and artistry, designing typefaces and leading public meditations for her community. The Red Dohle recruits and manipulates Tara to fight against the gahmen, but eventually she makes choices that define the pacifist she really is.

The Tinhau government is a master puppeteer, too. The gahmen moves its citizens around like blind pieces on a chess board, playing an all too familiar game of manipulation through politics, financial power, corruption, and international violence.

This sounds all too familiar in 2021 as governments around the world become more exposed by whistle-blowers and ordinary citizen journalism.

Lundberg masterfully introduces us early on to the concept of being gifted, of being a swee, in this remarkable passage on page 17. Here we are shown a graphic example of Zed being a swee in full control of his ability to shapeshift like the well-known X-Men character, Raven Darkholme (aka Mystique):

            Zed relaxed the part of his mind that qualified him as a swee, and with a practised mental click, his facial features flowed and reshaped and settled into their most familiar form; …as though nothing solid of him really existed, as if he were made of slow-moving tar that occasionally allowed itself to stiffen into a given form, but that had been long ago, before he had gained mastery.

            …Swees were more common every day—there were some experts who proposed that in just one or two more generations, no human being would be born without some kind of special ability—but Zed would have forgiven the doorman for losing his shit, at least a little bit, at seeing a man change his face right in front of him. Zed dug his scuffed national identification card out of his pocket and flashed it at the man, who grunted.

—Jason Erik Lundberg, A Fickle and Restless Weapon.

A Fickle and Restless Weapon has many passages flowing with descriptive prose, giving the reader an immersive experience. In fact, there were times I felt I was reading a graphic novel. I believe the novel could work in graphic novel format. At times I felt overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and tastes of Tinhau.

One of the most fascinating and tantalising aspects of Tinhau is it’s indiginous population of “subaltern Pohonorang”, an entire “sub-class of blue-collar workers and domestic servants” who are all “devoutly pacifist”. I am hoping for more work set in The Republic of Tinhau to feature this group of nameless people who speak a language that is “older than any living human language” and who, by the end of the novel “all just vanished, as though they’d never been” after “fifteen decades of oppression”.

Although A Fickle and Restless Weapon is populated by fantastical transhuman characters (on a seemingly inevitable evolutionary path to becoming posthuman), Lundberg is able to give them a voice and a reality that is relatable and all too human. They speak in a language they have made their own.

I would recommend A Fickle and Restless Weapon to readers who love great character-driven science fiction and fantasy built on a solid foundation of intricate worldbuilding. It is a supremely satisfying read and an achievement of epic proportions. I am curious to see what else Lundberg has planned for readers who will inevitably fall in love with The Republic of Tinhau and at least one of the three protagonists. 

How to cite: Ashby, Quenntis. “Identity is a Constant Negotiation and Struggle for a Self-Worth Fighting For: A Review of Jason Erik Lundberg’s A Fickle and Restless Weapon.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 29 Apr. 2021, https://chajournal.blog/2021/04/29/fickle-and-restless-weapon/

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Quenntis Ashby is a ‘scatterling’ of South Africa living and loving in Taiwan since 2003. He articulates his passion and love for language as an author, a poet, and an editor. His professional performing arts career continues to influence his body of words, often feeling as though he is a poem pretending to be a poet.

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