Summary: A vexatious shapeshifter walks among humans. Shadowy beasts skulk at the edges of the woods. A ghostly apparition haunts a lonely stretch of highway. Spirits and legends rise and join together to protect the north.
Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Tı-Yat’a is the debut novel from Dene author Katłıà. Set in Canada’s far north, this layered composite novel traverses space and time, from a community being stalked by a dark presence, a group of teenagers out for a dangerous joyride, to an archeological site on a mysterious island that holds a powerful secret.
Riveting, subtle, and unforgettable, Katłıà gives us a unique perspective into what the world might look like today if Indigenous legends walked amongst us, disguised as humans, and ensures that the spiritual significance and teachings behind the stories of Indigenous legends are respected and honored.
Thoughts: I want to say right now that despite my thorough enjoyment of this book, I am probably one of the least qualified people to comment on certain aspects of it. I am not Indigenous. I do not live in the part of Canada where this book takes place. I can’t speak to any experience regarding the culture, history, or language presented in Land-Water-Sky. That’s not to say the author didn’t portray things respectfully or accurately; it’s just to say that I am not one who can definitively say so.
But I can speak to how wonderful this book is, and how much I enjoyed everything that it offered.
I’m not sure whether to call Land-Water-Sky a collection of short stories that all tie into each other, or one long story that has huge gaps in it from time to time. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers call it a collection of short stories, and I can definitely see the logic to that, but my trouble with categorizing it as such is that each story holds parts of other stories within it; you can’t skip over any of them without encountering something later that just won’t make sense without context. But at the same time, there are so many leaps on the timeline that I can see why some wouldn’t consider it a single contiguous story. For my part, it feels a lot like history itself. You can isolate parts of it and tell the general story of that time, but you can’t just isolate events or people from the context of what came before, what shaped the world and the people who live within it. Even sections of the book that feel like disconnected interludes come back around in the end, proving themselves very relevant to understanding the story as a whole. You can’t really have one part without all the others.
The story starts far back in history, centuries in the past, when fierce and greedy beasts roamed the land, intent on destroying humanity and taking the world for themselves. It would be easy to say that with the aid of the gods, humanity wins and the beasts are destroyed, but that isn’t really the case. The beasts merely lie low, biding their time. The story takes leaps into the future, or I should say leaps into the present, when we see Deèyeh, an university student studying archaeology, eager to connect with a heritage that was stolen from her. A heritage that carries a greater burden than she could have imagined.
And believe me, I am not doing this book justice with that weak description. But to include all of the interwoven stories would involve so many spoilers, and I don’t want to ruin such a fantastic book for people.
An aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was the use of Wıı̀lıı̀deh (a dialect of Tłı̨chǫ) in the early sections. The characters speak their own language, which isn’t translated for the convenience of the reader. Considering that characters later on absolutely do speak English, I thought this was a fantastic contrast, as well as a subtle way of saying to readers, “I’m not going to hold your hand. If you want to understand, you’ll have to try for yourself.” And while I have no idea as to the literal translations of everything said, there was plenty that could be understood through context. Do I think I was mentally pronouncing the words properly? Probably not. Was I able to still learn as I went, get the gist of things, and pick up a few new phrases along the way? Absolutely yes.
The author deftly tackles the issues of colonialism and inter-generational trauma, both of which give scars that can take lifetimes to heal from. If ever. I won’t say there there are analogies drawn between the greedy violent mythological beasts and white colonizers, because frankly, I didn’t see any overt connections. But I won’t pretend that there wasn’t a degree of similarity between the two when it came to the matter of respect for the Indigenous way of life as presented in Land-Water-Sky. Whether it was apathy about helping Indigenous people prove their history on the land, or whether it was about stealing the land from its caretakers, it’s hard to not come to the conclusion that different kinds of opposition can produce the same result. Some things can’t just be ignored or treated as unimportant, without risking even greater damage.
Katłıà writes with all the weight and wonder of a myth come to life. She shows how to ancient interacts with the modern, both in terms of history and culture, and in mythical creatures that walk alongside us, whether we see them or not. There is much to love, and to learn, in Land-Water-Sky. I highly recommend it for those who enjoy myths and legends and their applications in the modern world, and for those who want to do their part in uplifting the voices of Indigenous authors. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)