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.

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Hammers On Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

A hardboiled detective.  A resourceful boy in dire straits.  A killer spreading like sickness through the poor side of London.  Forget good prevailing over evil.  Sometimes, the best you can hope for is the lesser of two monsters.

John Persons should know better than to take things at face value, and it’s not just because he’s a private investigator.  But when the snot nosed kid shows up at his office demanding–not requesting–help to protect his younger brother, Persons finds he can’t say no, and just as quickly finds himself caught up in a plot much larger than one body-snatching monster on the lose in the slums.

Like all good short fiction, this novella makes double use of language in a squishy kaleidoscope of color, motion, smells, sounds, and gut feelings.  It draws a beautiful metaphor for the idea of justice and protection of innocents, asking, through the existence of a man-shaped monster determined to solve crimes and vanquish demons, what we really give up when we relegate protecting the populace to a detached–and often dangerous–policing force, when community outsources its role to an arm of capitalism instead of taking responsibility for its own members.

It’s also just a really well-developed twisty horror noir on its own.

Khaw narrates through the voice of Persons himself, whose own personality is reflected and refracted through the mind of the man he’s inhabiting.  Creating a noir inflection without resorting solely to tropes and repetition is no small feat, and Khaw’s prose is delightfully anchored in the horrors Persons has seen and perpetrated in his long life.  This is the kind of writing one could spend a lifetime mastering, and is a pleasure to get one’s tentacles on.

Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

When you live life in the sun, in the canopy of the great trees, your biggest fear is falling. Or so Unar thought, when she left her home to become a servant in the garden of Audblayin, one of the twelve deities of Canopy. She ran from a life of poverty, only to learn that even in the lap of birth and fertility, rot can fester.

Unar believes she has a destiny, and that despite her mistakes she can earn a place of power and authority in Audblayin’s Garden, and perhaps change things for the better. Unar is one of those rare unlikeable heroes that the reader can’t quite bring herself to root for, but nevertheless follows after curiously, just to see what the young woman will make of herself. She has real internal conflicts and occasionally does stupid things, for all the world just like the teenager she would otherwise be if not for her gift with growing things and ability to manipulate plants to her will. She’s selfish and often infuriatingly mercurial, but she also has a hard-learned sense of justice that will speak strongly to a lot of readers.

Beneath the unique setting of this novel, Daiyer has laced her story with layers of allegory and metaphor, which are its real driving force. What is the nature of godhood and why are the deities of the great forest so complicated? What is the long history that led to some people living in the canopy while others suffer and toil lower down, or even in the swamps at the feet of the great trees?   Slavery is a key point in the novel, and Daiyer’s treatment of it has its thought provoking moments, but even when it seems just a plot device her characters never waiver from being fully personified with agency and motivations of their own.

Readers who enjoy idea-driven speculative fiction will be pulled in by social and cultural world building of this novel. Those looking for a vivid and intriguing new fantasy series will like the unique physical world building. Daiyer has written a series debut that is by turns gripping and thought-provoking, and that bodes well for the next installment.