Reviews

Begin the World Over by Kung Li Sun

kxiong5's review against another edition

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adventurous challenging hopeful inspiring tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

4.25

So…I read the first quarter of this book in snatches on commutes, etc. and then the last three quarters of this book in one furious night after getting back from Niagara Falls and from St. Catherine’s in Canada, which either fits or reinforced my sense of the book’s pacing: very slow at the beginning as we accumulate characters and backstory, and then very very fast as the revolution begins. 
 
 
Like The Free People’s Village, James starts as an entry point to revolution (as the uninitiated and uncertain revolutionary-by-circumstance, aka he got blackout drunk after meeting a very charismatic Denmark Vesey and snuck onto Vesey’s ship). But (maybe because he’s not white and white guilt is not at all focal in this book, thank god), he doesn’t dither in ways that get annoying and self-serving the way Maddie’s narrative in The Free People’s Village often does: He has serious concerns about his enslaved family members being sold as punishment for his escape, he has real career aspirations for himself and wants to make a name for himself as a chef, he has actual leadership skills in his ability to command a kitchen and work as a convener around that food (e.g. when he’s wheedling information about revolution out of folks like Vesey and Romaine, at first for purely gay reasons (lol Denmark)), and ultimately he chooses the path of revolution without hesitating after he’s made his choice. In any case, once he’s done being the entry point to the narrative, like a readerly warmup to the tactics of revolution, it turns into a multivocal narrative with even more interesting characters (Romaine, Mary, Red Eagle in particular, but to a lesser extent Denmark Vesey as well) with complex backstories and internal conflicts that get revealed in somehow totally different ways. (The kinds of internal conflicts they face also feel like a way of saying, you can have very different orientations towards action and your world and work very well together, e.g. Mary’s single-minded will to action against Andrew Jackson in the wake of her sister’s sale vs. Red Eagle’s struggle to inherit a (slightly gendered) matriarchal mantle his mother needs him to take on vs. Romaine’s having led and witnessed the price of failed revolution—they debate things furiously but ultimately put their egos aside and think of the lives at stake and reach consensus fast enough to keep their army agile and still manage to bring everyone with them in a way I’m realizing is a foundational aspect of revolutionary writing: you need to bring everyone with you into the future. You don’t break ranks and you don’t leave anyone behind. 
 
In some ways, I think this is a more successful way of getting at the tactics and community of revolution, while The Free People’s Village is more about the ambivalence of trying to do good as an individual within a divided community and find a political education in the whirlpool of modern disruptions and violence, which operates at a scale that the revolutionaries in Begin the World Over cannot match (muskets and machine guns require very different tactics // cannot operate a battlefield in the same way in the slightest). The Free People’s Village gets more at why things are hard today—scale-wise, political environment-wise, and in terms of individual egos playing a significant role in how people act around each other and why—and Begin the World Over works more so in terms of what things could be possible, if chosen, if everyone is willing to face up to violence and work together and not be tied to what the world should look like after the revolution while fighting the revolution itself (I mean, other than the obvious: people cannot be property, land cannot be property, you cannot bargain with people who are beholden to those ideas, and you cannot abandon your political allies). 
 
I’d love to look more into this author’s process of researching this book & write about this in conjunction with The Free People’s Village and Everything for Everyone (this book just cemented my need to write about these together—and talk about what it means to write an alternate history of the past, present, and future, and what you can do about narratives as such), and of course will need to reread pieces of this in the process. Overall, though: this book was thoroughly cool, if a little slow at the start, and reads like a heist novel (like if I’d actually enjoyed Six of Crows / if Six of Crows actually had a sense of mission and purpose that wasn’t tied to a full-on other series, but also more narratively experimental and interesting as well). 
 
A few scattered notes I made while reading: 
 
  • Mai’s discussion of an economic replacement for the slave trade
  • food at the heart of revolution (the Denmark x James romance as the driver of these didactic discussions of revolutionary tactics and the ways in which you can disagree fundamentally about them is interesting) 
  • Romaine’s experiences of faith…a willingness to read the signs from herons to people
  • How to use language this way in the real world? what of a world where language is losing its trust (given machine learning and language models?) 
  • The value of faith and recognizing when something is truly beginning to crumble…you need to write. Write like your mind’s on fire. This was the purpose of everything in your life.
  • note moments of significance in the novel and what they signify to you—in each of these characters’ narratives (the refusal that Red Eagle learns) 
  • Show and deception / subterfuge as a necessary part of revolution**
  • But also speed and flexibility—the ability to move quickly and as one with surprise and nimbleness —> and a willingness to give up all of what you think you have to chase down something you don’t know will happen (in for a penny, in for a pound // if you have very little to carry with you, you’re less afraid of losing it)  
  • And that Andrew Jackson’s downfall is his hesitance to attack what he sees as his own property!!! That hesitation in the need to protect property—this is what is powerful. This is what holds him back. 
  • Read these novels quickly and study them after…!! As a reader you cannot hesitate and the writers need to keep it that way (**interesting: think about what pacing does to these novels conceptually) 
  • The necessity of violence // and how violence operates on different scales (the easier more manageable violence of Begin the World Over vs that of The Free People’s Village)…how do you break through that if not via a world collapse? (NYC Commune?)
  • could do a general read / synthesis of these pieces quickly and delve into key moments / themes in each as bulleted sections 
  • Speed >> fast and slow work >> fast paced writing // writing with urgency vs. the slow sensorium of chemical time 

jumokemt's review

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adventurous emotional hopeful reflective fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

4.25

Didactic but remains very compelling b/c of the alternate possibilities that it portrays. 

zhollows's review

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adventurous hopeful informative inspiring tense fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

4.75

11corvus11's review

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5.0

Kung Li Sun's Begin the World Over is described as a "counterfactual" novel about the insurrection that resulted in the creation of Haiti. I am not a scholar of rebellions enacted by enslaved people throughout USA history, but I am interested in their stories, especially those that so often go untold. I am not sure if it's common to be ignorant about this particular uprising or not, but I was. Since the book is described as "counterfactual," I assumed initially to believe that the story was purely fiction. However, once I started the book, I realized just how much of it was true. The exact minute events and conversations may not be, but the people are very real. Sun tells us as much when they introduce the book, stating: "Characters are, by and large, real people, acting within the bounds of available evidence."

Knowing this, I approached the story as a historical fiction. Yet, as it went along, I still found myself fascinated and surprised by the extremely interesting characters. I eventually started googling them to figure out what parts were real and a hell of a lot of what occurred in this book was recorded throughout history. In particular, I was very excited by the fact that we meet multiple characters who transcend the bounds of gender conformity and heterosexuality. Romaine was the first character I ended up googling, when she is described as being born male but adopting the identity of a woman through inspiration and dedication to the virgin Mary. To call her a trans woman would be making assumptions about this interesting presentation that may be something more complicated and or fantastical, hence my language in the previous sentence. There is also some brief but passionate gay male action going on that I could not find evidence for in my very brief googling. It made sense nonetheless due to assumptions made historically about James Hemings' "fluid" sexuality.

These things among many other are what made this rebellion story stand out to me. Of course, LGBTQ folks have always existed, but they are often erased in these histories or at least these parts of their lives are. We also meet a great many maroons sharing space with Creek indigenous people. There is discussion about divisions among the indigenous between those like Red Eagle and Sehoy who will do anything they can to cooperate with and protect liberated slaves and those who would turn them in or worse in exchange for protection of their tribe from white slavers. This is also a real collaboration that happened throughout many revolutions and also in day to day life- maroons and indigenous people cooperating and living together on the margins of colonized and stolen land.

The story itself is exciting. I sometimes have trouble getting into period pieces and historical fiction simply because it's not my favorite type of fiction, but this book drew me in quite early. Sun manages to navigate the stories of many characters and their histories in ways that are both expansive and easy to follow. I felt as if I was along for the ride. I am keeping this vague to avoid spoilers, but I will say that, from what I gathered in my brief searches, the arc that the author chose to give James Hemings is the one that diverges most from recorded history. James Hemings met a tragic and lonely end in real life and this story gives his legacy redemption and a chance at a different timeline. I almost wish I had not looked him up, but at the same time, find the way his story was rewritten for him to be quite beautiful.

This is Kung Li Sun's first novel and I would definitely read something from them again. It was exciting, creative, engaging, and straight up fun at times despite taking place in such a torturous era full of horrific histories. It is an excellent reminder of what people can achieve together even in the most oppressive circumstances. I also really love the cover design. It combines destruction and liberation in a way that does the story justice.

This was also posted to my blog.

madimomreads's review

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adventurous challenging hopeful fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

5.0

librosyvaleria's review

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adventurous challenging dark emotional inspiring reflective medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes

5.0

An undoing of colonial history. A what if story that captures your imagination and explores the gritty details of an alternative version of US history where Black and Indigenous people align to undo the early days of the US empire. 

10/10 would read again. 

pink_distro's review

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5.0

this was incredible. the author brings to life real historical modes of Black and Indigenous resistance, and weaves them into a vibrant tale of a revolution that could have been.

it's fascinating to see how the characters (who are real people who lived historically) build trust, pass messages, build faith in their plans and dreams, and consider their conditions / problems when planning to run or execute whatever plan.

a lot of this book is about rousing enough collective courage & trust for people to leave what they know and put their lives on the line for their freedom. this happens at different times through ceremony, romance, vengeance, family & community leadership, kinship, faith, and LOTS of shared meals. in this area it has things to teach any movement / revolution.

this is a moving book, and a great pride month read bc of all the riotous trans & queer life it features. we need more stories like this. for our imaginations, and for our understandings of the histories & worlds we live in.

jialber's review

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adventurous challenging informative inspiring fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

5.0

I had not gotten beyond the back cover of Kung Li Sun’s Begin the World Over before I was stopped by a phrase the publisher used to describe the book. It was said to be a “counterfactual novel,” and, as with much else about the story, that very deliberate word choice begged for a nuanced exploration. Why choose counterfactual over, say, historical fiction or alternate history (not to mention allohistory or uchronia)? I think I understand the choice, but before I unpack the term counterfactual and explain why that may be the most important descriptor for Begin the World Over, I want to touch on a few of the many other merits of the book.

Although this is a first novel, the author’s plotting and pacing are satisfying and brisk. For that reason, my initial urge was to blaze through the book. But the author writes with such simplicity, clarity, and elegance that I often lingered over paragraphs of prose for the sheer pleasure of it. This accomplishment is all the more significant because Kung Li Sun is a lawyer (as am I). Happily, that part of legal writing training devoted to infinitely nested dependent clauses didn’t take.

Though counterfactual on certain critical elements in the story, much of the narrative is firmly grounded in history; every named character but one (Mary) is taken from historical records, and many of the events of the story are consistent with what is known about them. The delight therein is that, as the plot unfolds and new characters are introduced, Google becomes a rich appendix. Google is by no means necessary to understand and enjoy the book, but the pleasure of its detours and amplifications meant that I spent more time Googling than in the novel’s text. I wound up with a far deeper knowledge of late 18th-century history than could have been delivered in ponderous interior explanatory text.

An example of such rewards is the story’s central character, James Hemings (brother of Sally Hemings). Hemings serves an “adhesive” function. He connects characters that otherwise might stand alone and so exposes the phenomenal diversity and depth of the slave revolution that began in Haiti.

Hemings the historical figure was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson at age 9 and grew to become an accomplished French-trained chef while still bound in servitude. I found not only a wealth of online material devoted to James, but his history has also received book-length attention from several authors. My side trip into his life was itself almost book-length.

A collateral benefit of having a chef as a central character proved to be a glutton’s worth of food description and history threaded throughout the narrative. As with so many other facets of the book, that too was stuffed with scrumptious detail. More than once, I found myself hungry after reading a passage.

Now on to the word that I fell for: counterfactual. A popular sense of the word “history” is that there exists a single, eternal, and immutable truth about past events. In this imagined universe, historians uncover such “objective” truth and then simply tell what happened. There is a school of historiography closely aligned with that view—objectivist history—and it derives from the musings of, among others, Ayn Rand. Amazingly, that association has not yet condemned it. An ongoing debate pits objectivists against a variety of “relativist” schools. One counterpoint to the objectivist approach to history arises from…you guessed it…counterfactual history.

The counterfactual label is sometimes applied to fiction, as with Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Tower. But counterfactual narratives are also used by historians as tools to illuminate the types of choices that were available at the time significant events occurred. A principal proponent of this method is British historian Niall Ferguson. He uses counterfactual scenarios to illustrate his objections to determinist and objectivist versions of history and to make the case for the importance of contingency. Historians such as Ferguson try to show that a few key changes could have led to a significantly different world today.

Begin the World Over fits that mold precisely. It imagines that the slave rebellion begun in the West Indies by Black and Indigenous insurrectionists spilled over into the United States and redefined democracy in that age.

In some senses, it is the goal of objectivist history to relate what went “right.” U.S. history is often offered as a tale of what went right, but right from the perspective of wealthy, white, CIS, male, plantation-owning slaveholders. By that narrative, the United States emerged from the minor difficulties of slave revolts in a just-right, city-on-a-hill condition.

That dismissive view continues to be reinforced and narrowed further still, as we can see from the headlines. All manner of interests, from legislatures to Moms for Liberty, are crowbarring complex and nuanced historical narratives into a “truth” that suits their political interests. By those lights, slavery was a benevolent institution, leaving its beneficiaries with marketable skills rather than scars from the whip. And gender identity and sexuality are now (and, according to such advocates, have always been) binary absolutes, only black and white, with no room for a full spectrum. Those falling elsewhere on the spectrum stay in the dark back passages of history, out of view and beyond consideration.

Such tightly constrained narratives leave huge blanks in the histories that result, such that powerful possibilities and important personalities go unseen. Truths that still bear on us get lost, and we are all the poorer for it.

Begin the World Over was built to remedy some of that. James Hemings lived a queer life, right under the nose of Jefferson…and was not only tolerated but celebrated. The gender-atypical Prophetess, far from being relegated to some backwater, led an important matriarchal Indigenous society wherein truths were uncovered and decisions were made collaboratively. The power inherent in that collaboration was what enabled the spread of revolution. And it still threatens the political heirs of slaveholders, as we see from the energy devoted to minimizing so many organizations trying to effect change.

Reading Begin the World Over was like attending a semester-long seminar on using history to energize our collective sense of possibilities. In that sense, the book is an excellent fit and a leading light in the Emergent Strategy Series for which its publisher, AK Press, has become known.

rcielocruz's review

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5.0

Magnificent. A *must* read. We need this history and this instruction for our future. And so beautiful. The language. The relationships. The loving and precise description of the land. And the FOOD. Damn. What I am still thinking about is.the depth in all the characters and how they are with each other. The risks of love they took. Even the hard relationships felt loving. Damn. So deep and so good. It takes many forms of love to get us free. What an incredible and soul strengthening book. Thank you #KungLiSun #BeginTheWorldOver is immense and beautiful #BIPOCbooks #liberation #RacialJusticeReads #lgbtq #QTPOC #QueerBooks #LGBTQbooks #HistoricalFiction #SpeculativeFiction #BIPOCAuthors

carriepond's review

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adventurous hopeful inspiring reflective tense fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

5.0