If you’ve seen any buzz about author/illustrator Brom’s newest novel, Lost Gods (2016), in which the words “Dante” or “Inferno” are heavily featured, I’d advise you to read that buzz with a pinch of salt; to rely on the similarities between Lost Gods and Inferno is to neglect the breadth and depth of Brom’s creativity and imagination, and I would sorely hate to see this level of world-building and inspiration reduced to the bare-bones concept of “guy goes to Hell” when there’s so much more presented here.
Lost Gods does feature a man who travels to the netherworld, it’s true: Chet Moran, aged twenty-four, is fresh out of county lockup and trying to set his life straight with the assistance of his pregnant girlfriend, Trish. To this end, they flee her father’s house in Alabama for his grandmother’s home in South Carolina, on Moran Island, where he believes they will be safe from the law while they figure out what to do next and wait for their child to be born. The night after their arrival, however, Chet is killed, setting him on a journey through the underworld, desperate to find a way back to his loved ones. He’s been promised a way to make everything right again — he only needs to find and return a special key stolen from an angel by his long-dead grandfather — though, of course, no quest is ever as easy as the quest-giver makes it seem. Trish, meanwhile, is left in his grandmother’s increasingly questionable and terrifying care as the birth of her child approaches. She and the child are threatened by an ageless evil she can’t possibly comprehend, and which Chet only has a minor grasp of, though as he comes to understand more his need to protect them becomes that much greater.
In the underworld, Chet encounters Ana, a bitter and morose young woman, and Johnny, a formerly quadriplegic man who has been restored to his spry and cheerful adolescence. The three of them are beset upon by warring factions of souls in the netherworld, each with their own agendas and territories to fight over as roving bands of humans try to murder old gods and the groups of people who worship them. These factions have upset the traditional balance of power, stealing life and strength from ancient deities in the interest of setting men free from the need to worship higher beings. The gods, in return, fight to protect themselves and their acolytes from other gods and these recently-formed godless groups. Chet and his newfound companions are unwillingly dragged into the center of this conflict, forced to participate in brutal and complex battles with very real consequences.
Brom folds a surprising amount of established mythology into his fictional tale; if you’re familiar with creatures like Lamia, Veles, or Sekhmet, you may not be shocked by the behavior of their namesakes, but the ways in which they interact with original characters like Chet or Mary, one of the black-robed Sisters who gather the souls of infants, are inventive and compelling. The geography of Lost Gods is wide in scope: there are mentions of Asphodel Meadows, Calvary Hill, Heaven, Jahannam, Naraka, and Hell itself, each holding special perils for the unwary traveler. Through Chet, the reader learns that the netherworld has a system of currency, expected customs of behavior, unique mythologies, the history of its governance and politics, and even local food and drink, which Brom refers to in the Acknowledgements as “logistical challenges” which “make my particular vision of purgatory believable.” All of that effort adds up to a credible and well-thought-out fictional backdrop for his vision of the afterlife for both humans and gods, and while Chet’s journey takes center stage, it’s those details that make Lost Gods a fully-realized novel.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible artwork, of course. Full-color illustrations of some of the key players are featured, including the Red Lady (which doubles as Lost Gods’ cover art), a spider-like goddess named Yevabog, and a demon known as Lord Kashaol. There are also several black-and-white illustrations provided at key breaks in the text, setting expectations for what is to come as the plot twists even further. Brom’s prose is generally straightforward without meandering into overly poetic turns of phrase, but the moments in which he describes scenic vistas or a god’s awesome and terrible might are both striking and memorable.
The pace of Lost Gods is a little slow; it takes a long time for Chet to become the man he needs to be in order to protect Trish and their unborn child, and time passes at a different rate for him than it does for Trish, so what seems to take a week for him might only be an evening from her perspective. Trish herself doesn’t get much to do, but her few scenes are strong, and she’s far from a damsel-in-distress waiting for her hero to come and rescue her. The gods themselves are well-portrayed and appropriately distant from the followers they need in order to maintain their potency, and the sympathetic human characters are complex and intriguing. I would have liked to see more of what drives the men who seek to slay gods; aside from a brief but poignant conversation near the conclusion, most of these men don’t have much depth to their actions beyond bloodlust. And the descriptions of battles and wounds became a little repetitious near the end; there’s only so much gore and blood-spatter I can read about before it starts to drift into tedium. But the conclusion itself is supremely gratifying, and Brom ties together every last loose end in just the right way.
Ultimately, Lost Gods is a fresh and interesting take on the afterlife and what it might hold for weary travelers. Dante’s work is a clear influence on Lost Gods, but there’s a strong debt to John Milton as well, in addition to the wide range of mythologies and belief structures woven together with Brom’s own ideas. Highly recommended for classical-mythology enthusiasts and anyone who is looking for a guided tour of the netherworld.