*Given an advanced reading copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
Nichole Blake, who goes by Nic, is turning 12 years old, and for her birthday, she is looking forward to being trained by her dad on how to use the Gift as a real Manifestor. The Gift is a supernatural ability, which Nic’s dad has and therefore Nic has inherited. They are known as Remarkables. The human beings without the Gift are called Unremarkables. Though Nic wants a dragon badly, her dad gives her the safer option of a hellhound for her birthday. The hellhound, who is named Cocoa, has horns and is the size of a tiger. When Nic’s best friend JP comes over, he only sees a regular dog as an Unremarkable. Well, Nic has a feeling that JP may have seen more of Cocoa as a hellhound, but she lets that feeling go.
Since Nic and her dad have moved around the U.S. a lot, Nic feels settled in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s a city built on an inactive volcano, but they made a home with finding Remarkable friends at Ms. Lena’s juke joint where Rougarous, Vampires, Giants, and Fairies frequent. Bags with mojos, which control the elements with good intentions, and jujus, which control the elements with bad intentions, are sold and bought there. The juke joint is a safe haven for their community. Her dad works as a handyman, who collects haints, demons, ghouls, and other Remarkable creatures that are destroying Unremarkables’ homes without their knowledge. He sells these creatures to Ms. Lena to find a place for the evil spirits.
In Jackson, homeschooled Nic also has JP, the only other Black kid on the block, as they obsess over middle grade author TJ Retro’s fantasy series. It reminds Nic of Remarkables, except the characters in the series use Magic, which is considered a corrupt form of the Gift. When they go to a book signing to meet TJ Retro, they learn that he is an old friend of Nic’s dad. Since her dad refuses to teach her how to fully use her Gift, Nic receives a piece of Giftech, or Gift-infused technology, from her favorite author that ignites an unintentional adventure between the Unremarkable world and the Remarkable world. On this adventure, she pulls in JP and Cocoa to help her discover the truth about her family and find the Msaidizi, one of the most powerful tools in the universe, in order to save her dad who is accused of stealing it and kidnapping her.
Black folklore is interwoven into the storyline to heighten the differences between Remarkables and Unremarkables and give the tale a touch of familiarity. In the story, John Henry is the half-Giant who won a rock-drilling contest while building a railroad with a sledgehammer, which was the Msaidizi. High John the Conqueror, the shapeshifter who fell in love with the Devil’s daughter in one story, used the Msaidizi through a plow and an ax to plant and reap acres of corn, one of the impossible tasks given to him by the Devil. Annie Christmas is the half-Giant who used the Msaidizi as a pole for her keelboat to save hundreds of people. All figures are considered to be fictional but believed to be based on real people who overworked themselves to death by proving their superior strength. But in this novel, they all were Remarkables who knew how to use the Msaidizi.
Along with folklore, racial elements are also connected to the Gift. The Blakes’ Gift is believed to have originated in Africa and passed down by their ancestors. Through the pain and trauma amid the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is believed many people who had the Gift forgot their power and were unable to pass it down. During their adventure, Nic and her friends are kidnapped by a wizard who brings them to the Grand Wizard, as in the KKK, though the terrorist organization is not mentioned. Wizards are considered dangerous because they know about the Gift and use a wand to conjure up what they think is close to the Gift. The wizards claim to not be associated with the KKK, but they still want to capture Nic and her friends for their Manifestor connections.
Overall, the book is fast-paced with fantasy that seems more authentic to the Southern landscape with the mentions of haints and folkloric legends. A key to the author’s success in previous novels is getting into a young character’s mind and speaking in their voice, and this novel gives us another relatable character finding her true identity amid tough circumstances. This book review is a dose of the unputdownable story to avoid spoilers, but, of course, the ending opens to the potential second book in the series.