The Prey of Gods (2017), by Nicky Drayden, takes a well-worn concept — what if gods walked among regular humans? — and breathes new life into it through her innovative uses of location, technology, mythology, and complex characters in this blend of real-world problems and fantastical situations.
Life is pretty great in futuristic Port Elizabeth, South Africa (so long as you’ve got money); people have access to genetically-engineered pets, personal robots with varying degrees of intelligence and capability, and solar wells that draw both energy and moisture from the air. When a long-forgotten demigoddess currently styling herself as Sydney sees an opportunity to restore her former glory and supremacy, just as a powerful new hallucinogenic hits the streets, it sparks a tidal wave of change that will touch everyone in Port Elizabeth, and their survival rests in the hands of an unlikely group of people: Nomvula, a young girl with recently-discovered supernatural powers; Muzi, a teen struggling with his modern identity against his grandfather’s traditions; pop star Riya Natrajan, hiding a fair number of secrets behind her gleaming smile; and Councilman Wallace Stoker, trying to cope with issues ranging from an exploding dik-dik population to a mausoleum’s worth of skeletons in his closet.
The Prey of Gods has a small ensemble cast, initially quite discrete, but gradually drawn tightly together in unexpected ways. Drayden takes her time in showing who these people are and where they come from (both in terms of physical location and family background), which then leads into why they each react to their changing world in different ways. The battle of wills between Nomvula and Sydney is especially well-written, exploring the tension between past and future, and the methodology of the AI uprising was quite clever, though it progressed a little too quickly to have as much of an individual impact as I was hoping for.
Drayden’s vision of a futuristic South Africa is a fascinating one, influenced by a college trip she took there shortly after the end of apartheid. In many ways, the mentions of designer-gene pets and personal robots might seem to be par for the course, but Drayden maintains a constant awareness of South Africa’s tumultuous history and the ways in which blood and power would echo forward, affecting everything from politics to race relations to economic disparity. This ever-present background hum, as it were, morphs The Prey of Gods from a good piece of speculative fiction to something more interesting, more significant. And her inclusion of an invented-but-plausible creation story and ensuing mythology was an especially nice touch, particularly as those myths are revisited at various points in the novel.
The conclusion feels rushed — there are some character shifts and actions that could have used more explanation in order to feel fully logical — but as a whole, The Prey of Gods is exciting and captivating. I look forward to reading more from Nicky Drayden. Highly recommended.
Set in an optimistic near-future of benevolent technology and human achievement, The Prey of Gods is the story of a mixed-blood Xhosa Muzikayisa McCarthy, demigoddess Sydney Mazwai, South African Councilman Wallace Stoker, pop star Riya Natrajan, and Nomvula, a young country girl weighed down by the pains of her family. Given how diverse this cast is (in many different ways), it’s almost inevitable that much of the conflict is internal and emotional, and I think Nicky Drayden has done an excellent job meshing these personalities together in her debut novel. That’s not to say that there’s no action, though: Muzi, Sydney, Stoker, Riya, and Nomvula have some epic battle scenes together in war involving magic, technology, and religious spirits.
For me, the worldbuilding is one of the most fascinating parts of The Prey of Gods. Drayden’s debut weaves magic and technology together in a way reminiscent of Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky. By incorporating ancient magics into a futuristic, pseudo-utopian world, Drayden roots her magic system in local theology and mythology, which not only makes the world so much richer but also makes the story much more compelling. For low-urban fantasy as a genre, I think The Prey of Gods is a decent example of how to build a magic system rooted in the Earth-world.
Unfortunately, The Prey of Gods does have a few weaknesses, and most are in plot execution. One of the biggest downfalls for me is the prose. Many scenes just seem clumsily written — for example, this sex scene:
Underneath a curt smile, [Riya] cusses his name. Every hetero male over the age of thirteen and a half would die to get into her jewel-studded panties. Rife makes her beg for the privilege. She doesn’t beg long though — not after she guides his hand up her sculpted thigh, fingers navigating around lace and rhinestone until he’s knuckle-deep inside her.
“Please,” she moans, lips barely giving breath to the word. It angers Riya that he has this effect on her — but in all fairness, Rife knows a thing or two about addiction.
And now he fills her up, both literally and figuratively, their flesh occupying the same space in a slick dance of primal urges. Her fingertips slip across the muscles of his bare chest and then glide down the ripples of his abdomen, traveling over the scars of his livelihood so boldly on display … unlike all of hers, hidden neatly away. He’s as tough as they get, but now he’s gentle. Too gentle. She tells him so.
Not only do the euphemisms in this scene clash with the rather blunt, graphic prose in the rest of The Prey of Gods, the prose gives away too much about Drayden’s characters. There shouldn’t be a need for Drayden to come straight out and tell us that Riya has “hidden” scars or that Rife is “gentle.” These are all qualities that the reader can discover for herself by watching these characters interact with each other. By so explicitly laying out these characters’ personalities, Drayden almost seems to be sabotaging scenes in other parts of her work — why do scenes that showcase Riya’s scars or Rife’s gentleness exist if Drayden is going to tell us about these traits? In my book, this is a major flaw in The Prey of Gods because it makes Drayden’s characters feel one-dimensional and predictable.
All in all, The Prey of Gods was a fun, quick read with some interesting ideas. Unfortunately, it’s not brilliant enough for me to recommend wholeheartedly — there are just too many other books out there.
I come down in the middle between Jana and Kevin on this one. Nicky Drayden’s futuristic urban fantasy has original concepts, some great visuals and genuinely engaging characters. I thought the plot was creaky in spots, and, like Kevin, I wasn’t always thrilled with the prose, but I enjoyed this book and think it has a lot to recommend it.
Like Jana and Kevin I loved the origin story Drayden created for the gods in her high-tech world. The cosmology is original while having the feel of real mythology. I thought the convergence of gods, AI and genetic engineering was smoothly handled, even if the plot is rushed at the end.
A few visuals stood out for me; in particular, I loved the way the personal-assistant robots called alphies formed a Voltron-like megabot for an epic battle with the winged demigod Sydney. The scene had a comic-book vividness, and so did the lion/rhino/hawk hybrids, the rhionhawks.
The ensemble of characters is good. Muzi is a well-rounded teenage boy with believable issues. Nomvula is convincing as an innocent girl who is also a god, but my favorite character is Stoker. Stoker is a successful politician who seems to be completely under the thumb of a controlling mother, but Stoker truly cares about helping people, and once the political and social mask comes off, Stoker becomes amazingly powerful.
The Prey of Gods was a pleasant few hours’ read. I like Drayden’s imagination and vision, and I wonder what she will write next.