The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden

The world ends with fireworks and a pop concert, as we’ve come to expect.  South Africa, and particularly the southeast coast city of  Port Elizabeth has tried to move beyond Apartheid, beyond the poverty of global south post-colonialism, but time has a long memory and more short-lived humans are often destined to repeat history, despite all good intentions otherwise.  Because the problem with good intentions is the secrets every person hides, and for some, those secrets can kill.

The Prey of Gods, while it has an apocalyptic feel, is a novel of new beginnings, wonder, and family.  All the main characters have both something to hide, and must work to move past whatever secrets keep them in a place of darkness or fear.  There are, of course, villains, but even they are driven by a history written when the world was still young, and can’t help themselves.  This is where the novel excels, in fact, taking a mythologized history and literalizing it to create a speculative future.  The gods lived, died, and are now reborn.  What humanity does in response what drives the story.

The large cast of characters in this novel makes it difficult to pin down the driving plot, however it is Muzi’s desire to live a life outside the shadow of his larger-than-life grandfater, Stoker’s desire to live a life free of lies of identity and personality, and Nomvula’s desire to have a mother who is more than a shell of a person, to have someone in her life who really cares about her, that sets the world on fire and pushes the story to its inevitable conclusion.  Throw in a not-so-young-anymore pop diva who remade herself in the image of a woman who never knows fear or pain, a goddess of death determined to take over the world, and a drug dealer with a penchant for the new, and you’ve got the kind of volatile situation that leads to the birth of artificial intelligence and a new species of sentient robots, as well as genetically engineered extinct animal hybrids on the loose.

The Prey of Gods is a buzz-saw of a novel, because it manages to squeeze so much into so few pages, and although the second third of the story drags just a little with the necessity of pushing so many character viewpoints into a short period of chaotic time, there’s plenty still to chew on when the smoke clears.  Overall this novel is a great debut and positive outlook for the future of speculative fiction.

The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor

The
future and the past collide in The Book
of Phoenix
, a prologue to Okorafor’s Who
Fears Death
, as an old man finds a cave full of old computers out in the
desert and stumbles upon a story from the distant past—and the future.  Our future, that is.  When that old man begins to listen to
the story of Phoenix, we come face to face with the present taken to its
logical extreme.  With aliens,
wings, and a bit of magical realism, the reader is taken on a turbulent ride
through the life of Phoenix Okore.

The Book of Phoenix, unlike many future
dystopia novels, lives purely in a fantasy realm of its own making, like a
world in which matter is not subject to the usual forces of gravity.  Okorafor writes a brand of fantasy that
builds on Western African and other folklores, using the validity of those
beliefs and magics to interrogate the commonly held assumptions most American
whites make every day about those they other in order to define their own
identities.  Okorafor’s use of
estrangement is an affective tool in building a narrative that relies on the
‘found footage’ trope to tell a story of the world’s apocalypse.  Her rare blend of escapism and bleak
futurism provide a compelling story that keeps the reader hooked.

The
novel uses first-person narration to tell how Phoenix was born in a corporate
research tower, a created human with strange powers that the people who made
her hope to use as a weapon, most likely against the colonized peoples they are
already oppressing.  The use of
first-person often relies on exposition, which may have the effect of pushing
readers out of the future world that Phoenix lives in, and stretching the
suspension of disbelief at the wonders achieved even by those least qualified
to be stewards for the world.  Having
Phoenix tell her own story, though, is important to the narrative, and helps to
portray Phoenix as both powerful and fallible, able to achieve impossible
things while also a victim of her own strong emotions and the ignorance of her
own history in which she has been raised.

Readers
interested in dystopia that remembers the rest of the world—not just North
America or Europe—will enjoy traveling with Phoenix as she seeks asylum and
acceptance across continents and oceans. 
Those who like their fantasy to stray more towards magical realism or
the supernatural will enjoy Okorafor’s use of myth and folklore to build a
world in which nearly anything is possible.  Readers looking for a novel that is part of a connected
world of stories should check out The
Book of Phoenix
and its sister novel Who
Fears Death,
with a further stop at Kabu
Kabu
, Okorafor’s collection of short stories which was published between
the two.

The Stars Change, by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Mary Anne Mohanraj’s short novel The Stars Change imagines a world in
which all the promise of society has been—nominally—reached, placing its
inhabitants on the brink of an all-out war that could decide the fate of not
only their world but their entire known universe.  The Stars Change
plumbs the depths of the humanist philosophical debate, inviting the reader to
consider what parts of us—bodies, minds, emotions, intelligence, instinct,
urges—really make us human, and whether humanity is really the ideal for which
we all should strive. 

Taking
place on a world in which the largest university ever created—the University of
All Worlds—has been built as a place of learning and cooperation, The Stars Change alternates between the
points of view of a palette of characters both human and non-human—feline,
reptilian, insectoid, and more—with each person’s story intersecting and
setting off waves of consequence for those against whom they bump up.  Though the plot progression is linear, The Stars Change places emphasis on the
incidental—that which takes place at the same time, just before, or just after
a character’s experience—to show how even the smallest actions can have a deep
effect on others, especially the unknown other. 

At
first the novel may be difficult to get into, as the opening chapter is a
stream of consciousness from an unnamed actor.  The reader doesn’t find out until the end how the beginning
is relevant.  Mohanraj sketches
characters quickly, allowing readers to learn about them from each other’s
actions and reactions, from the way they think of others and in small
flashbacks throughout the tightly plotted action of the story.  Each character experiences desire,
fear, and need in their own ways. 
Mohanraj has created a story that allows all characters to be
individuals and yet take part in the sentient ecology of their world as part of
a larger whole.  Though characters
achieve greater self-knowledge and, in many instances greater peace with themselves,
by the end of the story, it is the reader who benefits most from the many
perspectives on consciousness and humanity that the characters bring.

Readers who enjoy far-future science
fiction that imagines humans and non-human life forms coexisting, as well as a
look at the future of medical technology, will enjoy the ways that Mohanraj
imagines the future.  Readers
looking for a future that includes underrepresented groups of people will also
enjoy the novel.  Adventurous
readers interested in human psychology what attracts people to each other will
find much to think about in The Stars
Change.