“Kot-TAM!” The Coyote Kings are here—or at least they’re in Edmonton, Canada. Minister Faust’s (AKA Malcolm Azania) debut novel is a page-turning metaphysical-cum-science fiction thriller. Or it would be a page-turner if it didn’t have its feet stuck in cold-day molasses. If The Coyote Kings were about a third shorter it would be a page-turner; as it stands, it reads like some strange (“post-modern”) exercise in linguistic ethnography.
The action, such as it is, takes places in Edmonton’s Somali-Sudanese-Ethiopian-Eritrean neighborhood, which Faust calls “the Kush.” (Kush is the ancient name for the Horn of Africa.) Hamza, a smart, good-looking dishwasher who was “white-balled” out of college, and Yehat, a video-store clerk who invents outré stuff, are the central characters and the Coyote Kings of the title. This pair of hip young black urbanites supplies a never-ending barrage of cultural trivia that doubles as psychological insight. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s just trivia. Comics fans (genre geeks in general) will love this pair for their vast knowledge of minutia. The narrative, though, rotates through eleven points of view, all in the first person. If Faust is weak at moving the plot along, he’s brilliant with character. Each narrator has his or her unique voice and charming (or disgusting, depending on whether we’re reading the good guys or the bad guys) peccadilloes. Hamza, for instance, says “Kot-TAM!” whenever he’s surprised or excited: as when he first meets Sherem, the book’s drop-dead (literally, if you cross her) gorgeous dark lady.
Sherem is after a mysterious artifact, but she’s not alone. Most of the novel’s other characters are after this same gizmo, which is described in terms somewhere between William S. Burroughs and Chrétien de Troyes. The question is, at least in Hamza’s mind (and when he stops to think), is she human or is she the sister from another planet? One thing’s for sure, though: she is, in the lingo, a playa. Hamza and Yehat, teamed up with Sherem, tangle with a truly nefarious group of gangsters, a black-white team of effete nerd brothers, delicious-sounding ethnic food and a couple CDs’ worth of underground hip-hop tunes.
All of which is great: what a breath of fresh air to 1) read a science fiction novel set in Canada, and 2) a novel set in Black, immigrant Canada, at that. (Azania-Faust said in an interview he wanted to portray Edmonton because it had never been featured in a novel before his.) And Faust definitely has the gift of tongues: he has a linguist’s knack for putting down dialect in black and white, and a poet’s aptitude for hip, genre-conscious description. One of the band of gangsters, “a coelacanth of sorts,” sports a barely intelligible manner of speaking: “diction and enunciation were not among the components when he was sewn together in Dr. Frankenstein’s discount surgery sweatshop.”
It’s easy enough to get caught up in the milieu of the Kush for a while. But then you realize you’re on the hundredth page—and nothing much has happened. After a while, the constant hip banter issuing from Faust’s pen becomes annoying. The author has the rap-artist’s flow, but he needs the Kot-TAM DJ’s beats to propel us through the rest of the book. It’s not until we’re a couple of hundred pages into the book (in other words, about halfway through) that the action picks up. I hope Faust gets another chance to play the novel game: the guy’s a prolix hip-hop William Blake: visionary and always good for a laugh. But he needs a lesson from the likes of Walter Mosley and Philip Kerr: first thicken the plot, and then season to taste with character.