Trigger warning for physical abuse.
The protagonist of Agnes Gomillion’s The Record Keeper, Arika Cobane, prides herself on her knowledge of the Compromise and the laws of a post-World War III world. She’s in the running to be valedictorian at the brutal school that is training her to be a Record Keeper, with her eyes on the prize of becoming a senator for the Kongo—a dark-skinned people who have mostly been relegated to slavery. She has been told all her life that Record Keepers are a step above the rest of the Kongo people. Arika has been told a lot of things, to be honest. It’s only now that she’s about to take her Final Exam that she finally has the blinders pulled off her head to see how much of what she’s been told are manipulative, racist lies.
The Record Keeper, like Rivers Solomon’s excellent An Unkindness of Ghosts, is the kind of science fiction that deliberately makes us uncomfortable. We can see immediately that slavery has been recreated in a society that hypocritically prides itself on doing things better than the previous generations who ruined the world. Because Arika has limited knowledge of the world before, she does’t know what she’s seeing. She’s also been conditioned to not ask certain questions. Her sadistic teacher, Headmistress Jones, makes sure that all debates stay carefully within acceptable limits. I’m not sure what the future would have been for Arika if a new student, Hosea, hadn’t suddenly appeared, just before the final exam. Hosea’s hostile muteness sparks against Arika’s curiosity and determination not to feel inferior to anyone leads her to try and figure out who this guy is. Before long, Arika is in way over her head as Headmistress Jones bribes her to turn spy against Hosea.
The slavery, Jones’ abuse of her students, and the manipulation of history had me squirming throughout the novel. Usually, I can tell if the discomfort is useful or not. For example, An Unkindness of Ghosts had very intelligent things to say about identity and social conditioning. The brilliant and believable world-building layered over its themes made for a rich reading experience. Other books, like Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith, didn’t fully engage with the reality of slavery, leaving me feeling upset without having learned anything. I’m not sure where The Record Keeper falls on this spectrum. On the one hand, there is a lot of thought put into the world’s backstory and nothing seems forced. On the other, because this book is clearly part of a series, I’m not sure what the payoff is going to be.
This novel is divided into two sections. In the first half-ish of The Record Keeper, Gomillion sets up her world, characters, and the stakes. The second, after Arika has literally and figuratively begun to break free of her mental chains, consists of a long training montage. I was worried about how much could reasonably fit into the rapidly decreasing number of pages as I read. Fair warning: this book ends in a cliff hanger. Because of the book’s structure, I would recommend that anyone interested in reading this book wait for the second book in the series to be published. The Record Keeper and its sequel should probably be read as one, big book.