Novel Review: The Water Dancer

We returned to Lockless with a horse, for that is what he traded Rose for. He had taken my mother from me. But it was not enough. He took my memory of her too, for when we left, my father in more rage than I had ever seen in him, he took the shell necklace from me. And I ran from him. And the next morning I ran down to the stables, where I saw the same horse my mother had been traded for, and there by the trough of water, I felt my first inclination of what I give to you now—- Conduction (397).

Ta-Nehisi Coates gained fame as a journalist and author of non-fiction books– and then as a writer for Marvel’s Black Panther. His first novel, published early this autumn, blends fantasy/magic realism with American history, and it found its way into Oprah’s influential Book Club.

Title: The Water Dancer
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
First published September 24, 2019.

ISBN-10: 0399590595
ISBN-13: 978-0399590597
Available from Amazon and as a kindle.


A young man, slave to his biological father on a dying American plantation in the years before the Civil War, makes contact with anti-slavery activists who believe he has a supernatural gift.

High Points:

The book has strong elements of Magic Realism / Fantasy, used to explore the role of memory and belief, among other things, in the context of slavery and the struggle against various kinds of oppression. All of this is fine, but Hiram Walker’s story works best for me when it remains grounded in actual history– and the actual history has been meticulously researched.

Low Points:

The book drags unnecessarily in the center. I came away feeling about a hundred or so pages could have been cut without significantly harming the narrative or its thematic explorations.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 Literary works have covered this period of American history from almost every conceivable angle, but I do not know of any that integrate elements of fantasy in quite the way that Coates has.

Imagery: 5/6 Coates creates vivid imagery for a fantasy rooted in historical reality.

Story: 5/6

Characterization: 5/6

Emotional Response: 5/6

Editing: 4/6 I like Coates’s style, overall. I feel the story requires editing.

Overall: 5/6

In total, The Water Dancer receives 33/42