Catherine Hernandez's sophomore novel, "Crosshairs," found its genesis in the aftermath of the 2016 massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, an event that shows up explicitly in the text. In a video for Xtra magazine, Hernandez described the destabilizing effect of this attack, which targeted queer and trans people, Black, Latino and Indigenous people as well as other people of color, and made her and her community question what they should do. "Do I need to arm myself as the world is changing in such frightening ways?" she asked herself.
"Crosshairs" is a deft exploration of what it means to live in a world teeming with the violence of white supremacy, and what that means for how people survive. It's also an engrossing and perfectly paced story, a dystopian parable that lives so close to the bone of reality that it rings painfully true.
The book is narrated by Kay, a Black queer drag queen living in Toronto. Climate change-induced flooding has destroyed infrastructure, disproportionately affecting historically marginalized communities — or "Others." A so-called "Renovation" takes place, in which an armed militia known as Boots oversees the exploitation and genocide of Others.
This starts insidiously, with an ever-increasing tolerance of atrocities as officials round up Others and bring them to "workhouses," where they secretly become enslaved or are killed. Among the white elite there are undercover allies who both hide Others and work with them toward an uprising with the aim of overthrowing the evil regime.
Hernandez does not shy away from the complications and conflicts of these characters who are simultaneously complicit and working to embody the resistance.
"Crosshairs" is populated with characters of various genders, abilities and racial identities, all of whom are shown in their full humanity. Hernandez renders the necessarily messy work of undoing white supremacy for characters at every crossroads. Her prose is at once sharp and punctuated with moments of lyrical beauty, even interludes of poetry.
"Crosshairs" is told in "whisper letters" from Kay to his partner, Evan, and it has an intimate quality that succeeds in centering love as the driving force of resistance. The narrative weaves flashbacks to joyful memories Kay has with his pre-Renovation community, when the writing was on the wall but the choice could still be made to ignore it for a night or two.
But the overall propulsion of the book is forward, toward an increasingly disturbing and corporeally arresting climax. With the death of the fictional U.S. president who "represented all the hate white people have spent decades pretending isn't there," the stakes of survival — physical and emotional — become even more potent.
"How fragile safety is," muses one of the characters. "How fragile life is." This sentiment feels prescient in both America and Canada in this moment, at the end of a long and raw year in the long and imperialist history of an empire that continues to enact genocide and oppression every day. It isn't far-fetched to describe it, as Hernandez does, in "images of cut tongues, blood rivers, and bone bridges."
In Hernandez's skilled storytelling hands, white supremacy is the root of evil but it is not the center of the story.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.
By: Catherine Hernandez.
Publisher: Atria Books, 272 pages, $27.