No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull
No Gods, No Monsters (2021) is one of the books that had me admiring it more than enjoying it. Strongly crafted on a sentence level, built on a structure both complex and deftly handled, and dealing with some seriously weighty themes, the book still left me, despite all that, a bit cold, a bit resistant to its charms. Still, as you’ll see, I’m mostly strongly recommending it, even if it didn’t wholly win me over.
We begin with a scene that seems all too familiar. One of the main characters, Laina, is at the morgue standing over the body of her brother Lincoln, an unarmed black man killed by a policeman as he was “running through the streets as bare as on the day he was born.” High, Laina assumes of her drug-addicted brother, but then rumors of a tape being kept secret by the police crop up, followed by a visit from Rebecca, one of Lincoln’s friends, who tells Laina he had sobered up and was on his way to see her the day he was killed. The same day Rebecca visits, the tape mysteriously shows up in Laina’s place and what it shows turns her world upside down. The cop, his bodycam shaking in fear, is being chased by a massive doglike creature but when he shoots it dead, it transforms into Lincoln. Her brother was a werewolf. Soon after, Laina posts the video to several streaming sights, and though some try to claim it’s a hoax, when a group of werewolves (including Rebecca) block the interstate and transform themselves while cameras shoot, the entire world is awakened to the fact that “monsters” of all sorts (shapeshifters, invisibles, fire-breathers, vampires, etc.) have long existed but have hidden themselves away for safety’s sake. The night of revelation becomes known as “The Fracture.” What still remains unknown to the public is that the monsters are not monolithic in their viewpoints, that there are a number of ancient secret societies, some acting in concert while others are at odds in an uneasy truce that is about to be violently broken.
This is the world of No Gods, No Monsters. Along with Laina and Rebecca (who eventually enter into a relationship), the wide-ranging and highly diverse cast of characters also includes:
- Ridley: Laina’s asexual, trans husband who owns a co-op bookstore
- Harry: recently divorced, in an attempt to distract himself he goes down internet secret society rabbit holes, becoming more obsessed after The Fracture
- “Dragon”: a young monster seen as a tool by others
- a woman who can become invisible
- Sondra: a senator from St. Thomas who is also a were-dog
- a semi-omniscient narrator who remains a mystery until the end
The settings too are diverse, shifting all over the place, as does the quasi-linear narrative, and this combination creates a mosaic novel, a kaleidoscopic reading experience as individuals weave in and out and groups begin to form. Or maybe a jigsaw puzzle is a better analogy, as Cadwell Turnbull often withholds information so that the reader is always trying to put the pieces together while having to re-evaluate what they had thought the picture was supposed to be. While all this shifting is mostly handled adroitly — if the reader is unsure about things, it’s because we’re meant to be — I do think the structure sometimes causes some pacing issues.
The worldbuilding as we tend to think of it in fantasy (where do these gods come from, what sort of powers do the monsters have, when and where did these societies form) is somewhat thin, but again (I’m assuming) not due to a lack of writing skill but because, at least in this first book of a projected trilogy called THE CONVERGENCE SAGA, Turnbull is more focused on character than plot, on people rather than backstory. What’s important is what motivates characters here — what traumas, what outside events, what inner demons, what goals and desires — and while all that takes place against this semi-mythical backdrop of gods and monsters and secret societies that is vitally important, it is still backdrop. At least for now. And then, more prosaically in terms of character and plot, many of these characters have their own reasons for keeping information close to their chests, and so we as the reader aren’t privy to a lot because the characters, as opposed to the author, aren’t willing/ready to share. They can lead to some potential frustration, especially for a certain type of reader (you know who you are). For me, it wasn’t so much leading to frustration as creating distance between me and the story.
The themes in No Gods, No Monsters are plentiful and weighty: power, race, class, bigotry, capitalism, collectivity, trauma effects, colonialism, the burden and joy of family. Some of the metaphors are obvious. Monsters have long stood in for the more mundane “others” long terrorized and marginalized in our world. A comparison made explicit in a passage summarizing one of the reactions to The Fracture:
A Latino man was pulled from his home, doused with gasoline, and set ablaze… An Indian woman carrying groceries was hit over the head … The man standing over her brought down the bat several more times … A Black teenage boy was found, his throat cut. These things happened before, had always happened, but now the reasons for them had changed.
Those who have been othered always make great scapegoats, and people are often rarely concerned about whether or not they’re actually any kind of threat beyond their mere existence. And that last line is devastating in its understatement and in the way it raises the obvious question of just who are the “monsters” here.
Another clear analogy in the novel relates to the question as to whether those others who can “pass” should “come out” to the world and risk the potential (and potentially fatal) backlash or hide who they are for the sake of safety and a kind of (tortured) ease. The “monsters” are not monolithic on this at all, and the unveiling protest undertaken by the werewolves at the start ignites a conflict amongst the various societies. Because the monsters are a stand-in for marginalized groups, Turnbull can further complicate things (and shed yet another light on current society) by showing us how those groups already scorned by much of society react to a “new” such group. In an ideal world, of course, it would be with immediate solidarity. But we don’t live in that world. As we see in this passage when one member of a cooperative reveals himself to be a monster and decides to bring the question of what to do out in the open:
“Our collective’s mission is to support the solidarity movement. Often, that has meant supporting marginalized people. Some of you are people of color, and some of you are part of the queer and trans community, like me. Many of the most vulnerable monsters are also a part of these communities, which is why redefining solidarity to include them is so important. In that spirit, I think we should extend our support to monsters since it’s likely that they’re already in the movement but have chosen to remain silent.”
Ridley feels the reflexive terror move through the room.
Nick speaks first. “When you say ‘monsters,’ who do you mean?”
Melku: “Vulnerable ones.”
Nick: “And what does that mean?”
Frankie, glancing at Cassie: “Do you know any monsters? I’ve never met one. I’m not sure they actually exist.”
Melku: “Yes. I am a monster. So is Cassie.”
Frankie, turning red: “Oh.”
Nick makes a face anyone can recognize, somewhere between shock and rage.
While sometimes the metaphor can be a bit on the nose, I did appreciate the layered, nuanced approach Turnbull takes toward the subject. As for other topics, given the precipitating event, the shooting of an unarmed black man by a cop (a black man seen as an animal by the cop), it’s obvious at the start that Turnbull is interested in what is going on (and, sadly, has been going) in society, as well as what might spark a change or what has prevented it. To the latter, we see a world after the Fracture where a large number of people just refuse to believe it or are indifferent to whether it is true or not, which is not all that dissimilar to how many in our world treat any of a host of social ills: racism, misogyny, poverty, even climate change. While I get what Turnbull is going for here (I think), I confess I had a hard time buying into this part, as the whole “monsters exist” seemed of a different class. I could much more easily buy into that first, more violent type of reaction noted earlier. That said, while it nagged, I could go along because, again, I liked what he’s saying with it.
There’s a lot more here to unpack, the effect of trauma, how one deals with one’s otherness not in the semi-removed world of “society” but in the painfully close emotional world of one’s own family, the manipulation of power and its use, references to Ursula Le Guin, the ways in which the world is simply a mystery to us, the idea that some questions — even vitally important ones — may not have answers (certainly not easy ones). No Gods, No Monsters is not, therefore, a “zip-through” kind of book. Plan to spend some time, plan to do some work. Does it pay off? Well, as I said above, it did leave me a bit cold, a bit at a remove. But it deals with so much that’s so important, the craftsmanship is so strong, the little bits and moments of characterization so sharp, the book as whole so thoughtful, that I’m still recommending it. Highly if not enthusiastically, if that makes sense. And if it doesn’t, well, that’s more than fitting for this title.