The Godless by Ben Peek
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
This is part of a series of of ten reviews, walking through the shortlists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the complete list here, as well as a bit about the awards, the books and the criteria I'm using. Voting concludes on 17 July.
Ben Peek's The Godless (2014) is the second of our five Morningstar* finalists, and, as you might expect from a fantasy debut, the first in a new series. It is a very dense book, in an intriguing new world, with several full and rich themes.
In fact, here's a little game. Here's a book 'blurb' for The Godless:
The gods are dead. The moon is one god's corpse; a mountain range, another. The God-War's cataclysmic conclusion condemned the world as well; the lingering necrosis from the bodies of the divine permeating the soil, the water and the air. Humanity tries to rebuild and move forward, but the world itself has turned against them. Cannibals ravage the hills, settlements are disappearing, entire kingdoms have gone silent... Three outcasts unite in a doomed attempt to defend their home, the last spark of civilisation.
The Godless is a Dying Earth book - a fusion of science fiction and fantasy, in a doomed world where hopeless religion wars with forgotten science. As the gods expire and civilisations tumble, the real quest here is one of survival. Ayae is a refugee from a genocidal war in a different land, seeking succour in the mountain city of Mireea. Bueralan is a mercenary, hired in Mireea's defense. And Zaifyr is an immortal wanderer, in Mireea to bear witness to the end of an age.
Here's another blurb:
Humans all over the world are being born with strange and inexplicable powers, the very essence of magic coursing through their bodies. Some are ravaged by this sorcery, and die, twisted and broken. Others have the powers of the gods themselves. Are they the next step in evolution? Or monsters? But all are condemned by civilisation as cursed. A young woman, Ayae, suddenly exhibits incredible supernatural powers, bringing her to the attention of two warring factions. Will she join a secret society of adepts who have the express goal of ruling the world? Or a small group of outcast heroes, using her powers to defending the very people who shun her? And can she master her powers before they master her?
The Cursed, those 'tainted' by the decomposing essence of the fallen divinities, are basically mutants, and The Godless is their story. There are the Gods, then there are the Immortals (the first Cursed, kind of - or just think of them as Omega-Class Mutants), and then there are the Cursed, your basic everyday mutant, born with latent aspects of divine power. There are also God-Touched - those given powers willingly, by a living God. And at least one other type of quasi-immortal being, a sort of 'science hero', with powers passed down through knowledge.
Ayae has strange and wonderful new powers, but needs to decide how she will use them, who she will use them for, and how she sees herself. Is she truly 'cursed'? Or is she the next step in the evolution of humanity?
And one more blurb:
Mireea is the wealthiest city in the world. It is a centre of trade, the capital of culture, where people all over the land send their children for education and opportunity. Mireea has a benevolent monarch and a thriving market - alliances in all directions and enemies in none. Or so it thought. A sudden attack in the heart of the city, an explosive assault on one of Mireea's cultural icons, shatters the illusion of peace - and invincibility. Now, an army of fanatics marches on the city, a legion of the overlooked, all united in a holy war against all that Mireea stands for (and on). As the city struggles, betrayed by bad information, unreliable allies and it's own conceit, an unlikely hero arises: a refugee from a different war, fiercely loyal to her adopted home, even as it sees her as an outsider.
The Godless is a secondary world allegory for 9/11 and its cultural, political and military fallout. A nation, secure in its power, ignores the obvious warning signs - and the fact that it is (literally!) built on the blood of another culture's beliefs. When Leera, a neighbouring country that's long deemed 'barbaric' and beneath notice, attacks, all of Mireea's casual assumptions fall by the wayside. This is a book about a group of people realising the world they believed in is tumbling down around them; that there's a hatred out there that they didn't even know about, much less take seriously.
Ayea, Bueralan and Zaifyr are united in their outsider status. They've been drawn to Mireea for personal reasons. They're keen to make a new home, forget the past, or take advantage of its many opportunities. But despite that, they've never been wholly accepted by the city - making them unusual heroes. The Godless is about security and isolation and - for that matter - colonialism, but it is also about the notion of home. Mireea is more than walls, buildings and trade agreements, it is also a shelter, a place of belonging, a collection of - not things - but people. Mireea is an idea; one that's under siege.
None of those, I hasten to add, are the official blurb (although I ripped off a bit of it in a few places). Nor are any of those particularly good blurbs - but they do show that you can slice up The Godless in very different ways, and get very different, very full stories. This is, as noted above, a particular rich book.
The problem is, The Godless is only one book. By weaving together all these threads, The Godless makes a very colourful, but very frayed, rope. The deep history of the world is injected through lectures and lengthy epigraphs. By contrast, the emotional development is often given short shrift - Ayae's struggles with acceptance are resolved from one scene to the next, her training is largely 'off-screen' (if it occurs at all), and her internalised debate, well.. isn't. She finds her powers, gets lectured about them, chooses a side and then leaps into battle with the frenetic page of a comic book, not an epic.
Similarly, Bueralan has his past established, but to no end - there are fascinating flashbacks, but then spends most of the present time as a witness (in a cage, no less) - until he has a few cosmic-level encounters. Zaifyr is the most ill-served. As one of the most important individuals in this land's history, with immense power at his fingertips. But The Godless distills his thousands of years of conflict into a few dreamlike flashbacks, punctuated by displays of vast power. We know he has psychological limitations on his power, but, like Ayae's development and Beuralan's mission, Zaifyr seems to leap straight from 'establishing the character' to 'overcoming his conflict'. He is an unusual interpretation of the Wise Old Man - and far more interesting than your bog-standard Fizban-clone, but as something more than an archetype, he needs more space to breathe.
The result is a book that is unquestionably ambitious, packed to bursting with interesting ideas and challenging, thoughtful themes. It tackles questions of ethics and faith, politics and identity, love and loyalty. Where do we belong? What is religion like in a world where you know gods are real - but then they die? How responsible are the citizens of a community for acts they never knew about? Etc. etc. The Godless doesn't shy from using its fantasy platform to ask tough questions, but, despite its best efforts, it is only one book - and something's got to give.
Is it fantastic? Good decaying-body-of-an-ancient-God and spontaneously-developing-flame-powers, yes.
Is it entertaining? Yup. As noted, this is three books in one. Messy, yes. Dull? Never.
Is it immersive? Mostly. I'm a little torn here. I'm a pretty firm believer in 'show-don't-tell', and I respect that we get both of the key settings - Mireea and Leera - less as physical places than as emotional responses to said places. Mireea, for example, is less a city than it is a series of impressions relating to Ayae's sense of 'home'. The cities under the mountain are less a twisty-turny dungeon than a series of haunting sensations. Leera is less a landscape than a Bueralan's reaction to it, a disconcerting emptiness. It is psychogeographical, and very clever and undoubtedly good writing, and yet...
...to balance this out, The Godless does a lot of expositional infodumping - almanac extracts that supplement the feelings with the facts. I can see why, as there's enough happening that the history and 'rules' have to get in there somwhere. But the epigrams and educational tangents provide further interruption in an already-skittish narrative. Everything's there, and the world is very, very interesting, but... hmm. Let's stick with 'mostly'.
Is it emotionally engaging? Darnit, not really. Again, The Godless really tries, but I think this is where the 'just too much'-ness lets it down. You can supplement the world-building with epigraphs. But there's no equivalent for character development. Ayae alone has a dozen emotional hooks - from a weaselly shit of a boyfriend to the sense of displacement to the grappling with the Chosenness to the railing against being Cursed to the being under siege to being taught by an Immortal being to feeling betrayed to etc. etc. And all of these emotional paths get very cursory, if deftly described, treatment. And Ayae is probably the simplest of the three major point of view characters. Bueralan is dealing with betrayal, duty, disappointment, honour, abandonment, his past, his future, his family, his etc. And Zaifyr is, you know, an millennia-old being that's wrestling with his very sanity. There's just so very, very much, and, as intriguing as it all is, it happens at speed, and the only way to take it in at a remove. The Godless is engaging, but largely on the level of intellectual curiosity. You want to know what happens, rather than caring about whom it is happening to.
Is it embarrassing? Not at all. The Godless is actually... awesome. Only one of the three POVs, Zaifyr, is white and the Chosen One isn't just a woman, but also a minority and a refugee - and she combines 'being born special' with working very, very hard for it. Also, all the major political figures - and the Big Bad - are all women. And you know what makes this really work? The Godless doesn't make a big deal out of it. It just is, showing that diverse stories don't need to be forced or ham-fisted or delivered on a platform - they can just be. This is a book worth reading for the effortless diversity alone.
Is it different? Yes. Dying Earth and Fantasy Superheroes are still relatively unusual, although both been done. [Vance and Harrison are the classic examples of the former, and I'd specifically recommend Smiler's Fair if you're interested in a 'the gods fought and died, here's what happens next' setting. As well as in non-secondary world books like Myke Cole's, the 'fantasy X-Men' refrain can be found in most half-decent fantasy series in which heroes have innate magical powers (or, hell, don't - see something like Darksword or A Spell for Chameleon for the reverse.) And, for that matter, Mark Charan Newton's City of Ruin is a combination of the both themes.]
However, I think the third strand - the way The Godless addresses ideas of cultural identity and belonging in a post-9/11 world - feels new. And also contemporary in a way that couldn't really have existed before now, and that's exciting. And, just to reiterate, the diversity of the characters, above, is still a rare thing, so - that's (sadly) different as well.
You'll need to forgive me for a slightly introspective conclusion, as I'm going to eschew proper reviewing and go straight into a series of statements of 'me' and my own feelz. Books like The Godless are why I really like doing the DGLA reviews every year. Primarily because, as a result of reviewing it, I like it more. The jumpy pacing that I had initially dismissed as routine epic awkwardness actually results from the novel's immense ambition. There's a lot going on here - too much, probably - and in the rush to get it all on the page, the story-telling suffers, replaced by narrative jump-cuts. It requires the reader to step back, consider and organise their thoughts in order to appreciate the full scope of the novel's thematic yearnings.
The result? I'm glad I had the opportunity to consider the book more thoroughly. And I certainly think that, based on the criteria, it is a contender. The Godless has its flaws, but at least they stem from ambition, rather than its absence. Ironically, were this book actually a debut, I'd brand it as 'promising', and, certainly as a 'DGLA debut', it does bring experimentation into a genre not normally renowned for it. As it is, it'll have to settle for 'ambitious'.
*The Godless isn't actually a debut. Ben Peek's other titles include Above/Below (2011), Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth (2006) and Black Sheep (2007). I suppose the DGLA argument is that these are more science-fiction than fantasy. But The Godless certainly isn't Peek's first novel, nor even his first genre novel. As far as DGLA voting goes, I wouldn't not vote for Peek based on this - his author bio and profile are all very clear about his writing history, and the award admins clearly waved The Godless through - but... well, weird. As with previous years, I'll set up a separate post to talk about the DGLA, and allow folks to brainstorm possible improvements.