Somewhere in the night, a dog wanders. Somewhere in South Texas during a blackout, the dog gives birth. Somewhere in America during a global climate crisis, a man finds the dog and brings her home.
In her genre-hopping novel Luz at Midnight (FlowerSong Press, 2020), Marisol Cortez tells a story of the passionate, exhausting search for hope and perseverance against desperation, frustration, injustice, and hopelessness. In this striking climate fiction book with a love story, idealistic and thoughtful Citlali “Lali” Sanchez-O’Connor falls fervently—and in her mind, unfortunately—in love with journalist Joel Champlain, who uncovers the slow-acting political and economic leaders in a fast-moving climate crisis affecting the inhabitants of San Antonio. Lali has a husband, a child, and a job lined up across the country, and she grapples with the badly-timed discovery of a passion she had never felt before. Both Lali and Joel are navigating their dissatisfaction with unfulfilled promises—within their lives and from the people who have the power to stop the climate crisis they are both fighting in personal and professional capacities.
Lali’s confessional opening hints at the passion, reflection, and uncertainty to come. Her discovery of love dawns with the realization that it is “something that in its very inexplicability could not be controlled or reckoned with or understood.” Joel’s introduction is striking, too, presented in second-person point of view with vivid details. We learn about his struggles with mental health and the cognitive dissonance between his ideals and the reality of his work. He questions himself, and his ennui permeates his narrative, speaking to those who have ever questioned their impact, especially those who work against injustice. He struggles to belong and find connection with like-minded people, asking “How can I be part of something but not of something?”
Weaving masterfully between numerous narrative styles and genres—including poetic prose, contemporary storytelling, poetry, theatrical script, musings on physics and human interconnection, research notes, and even news articles—Cortez takes us through multiple perspectives, seeing romance and climate change through various lenses. Lali’s growing understanding of “the complex political interweaving of oil and water and money and color” tie the book’s many elements together. Stylistic choices also treat the text like artwork; dialogue isn’t set off by quotation marks, and the characters’ speech blends into the narrative. The text invites readers to place themselves into the story, using focus and context to derive its meaning. It shifts between past and present tense, showing time’s many links to itself. Every new section begins with another Chapter One—a resetting of time, an acknowledgement of a new beginning amidst many beginnings and endings.
The many characters of Luz at Midnight are well fleshed-out, both memorable and familiar. With stories told with nuance and empathy, these characters comprise people from all backgrounds, from activists to those simply doing their jobs and hoping they do them well. For a brief time, we walk with each character, seeing the world through their eyes and understanding how their experiences have shaped their views and dreams. We see how these characters interact with each other and how their stories intertwine, always drawing back to the idea of connection. The story highlights connections between people, between history and the future, between nature and humanity, and between legacy and damage. Human thought and relationships are explored with artistic, whimsical writing that is at times thoughtful, solemn, or humorous. The characters lean on humor in some of their darkest moments, especially when they feel they have nothing else—yet instances of this humor, like those in the narrative, are weighed down by more sobering realities:
“He laughs and waves back. Alto a los rate hikes!
But it really wasn’t funny.”
The characters fight for and live in a San Antonio that is both realistic and fictionalized. Multiple references are made that show the author’s familiarity with the city, and the setting imagines what might happen as the city’s political and economic leaders and citizens respond to issues brought about by climate change—and ultimately by the people themselves. As they delve into the issues plaguing the city, Joel, Lali, and their colleagues grapple with the knowledge that “whoever decided what happened to the land decided the future.” The story’s timeliness and relevance are uncanny; just months before a snowstorm and Texas’ electrical system would lead to prolonged blackouts in multiple areas, disproportionately affecting poorer and more marginalized communities, Cortez warns of those very risks in Texas’ electrical grid plans. These incidents are described in compelling language that personifies nature with “her” instead of “it,” and the narrative frequently ponders nature’s overarching power, extending into every life and permeating the landscape.
Ultimately, Luz at Midnight is thought-provoking, and its many twists and forays into multiple narrative styles ensured my constant reflection and focus. The characters are raw and genuine, and I deeply felt their passion and exhaustion as I followed their stories. The story lovingly and thoughtfully explores human relationships, how they impact and are in turn impacted by the earth, and imagines a near future dealing with climate issues, but ultimately, it is a book about desire and love, whether those are between characters, between people and their city, between animals and humans, or between humans and our world. “When we’re held like that, unconditionally—that’s when our pain becomes endurance, courage. That’s what allows us to survive in the face of violence and to do this work year after year, decade after decade.”
Stephi Cham is a freelance editor and author. She received her BM in Music Therapy and Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University and is pursuing her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she is the Fiction Editor of Rathalla Review. She wrote the Great Asian-Americans series, published in 2018 by Capstone Press, and her writing has been featured in Strange Horizons.