written by David Steffen
The Prey of Gods is a science fiction and fantasy novel from Harper Voyager, the premier novel by Nicky Drayden.
The book takes place in a future South Africa, where there are a lot of improvements for the future–everyone has a helper android to help make life easier, and the booming genetic engineering business in Port Elizabeth has revitalized the town.
A hallucinogenic drug is gaining popularity, awakening long-dormant parts of the human brain. And living among us are those who are more than human. Sydney is a demigoddess who has been laying low for decades, living a subsistence lifestyle for her kind, but she sees opportunity in the state of the world to rise again to her former glory. The unlikely group of people to stop her: Muzi, a gay teenager living with a traditionalist grandfather and who is discovering his ability to to control minds, Riya, a superstar pop singer who hides her medical condition, Nomvula, a young Zulu girl discovering her own power, and a politician who has a secret second life as a woman (and a singer).
The biggest strengths of the book (and by extension my first sampling of Drayden’s novel-length writing) are: ignoring genre boundaries, strong relatable characters, a sense of humor, and solid action elements that never let the reader be bored.
One of the things I really liked about the book is that it was solidly science fantasy. There were strong elements of both science fiction (intelligent robot helpers, genetic engineering, technological progression beyond the current time), and fantasy (demigoddesses, other myths proved true). I feel like publishers too often tend to pigeonhole books into being clearly either science fiction or fantasy–that is important for some stories (The Martian would’ve been ruined if fantasy elements were added for instance) but I would like to see more stories like this that freely mix the two. The boundary between is in many cases entirely arbitrary, so why not mix them when it makes a more interesting story.
I wasn’t sure how the ensemble cast would work, if there would be too many characters too really get into them, but Drayden has made each one interesting and relatable in their own way. At first the characters seem to have no connection with each other, but soon the lines of connection between them start to form. Even Sydney the demigoddess, who is the clearest villain of the novel, is relatable in her own way–remember the great heights of power she has fallen from, she wants to recapture her glory days, but as the book starts she is working in a salon just trying to eke out a basic living and only using tiny bits of magic in small strategic ways. If anything, I would’ve liked to get to know the characters even better, by the book being longer, but at the same time I appreciated that the book is well-paced and never dawdles, so probably what I really want is for Drayden to write book 2.
I had some unresolved concerns about the ending (but nothing that couldn’t be resolved by a second book). I quite enjoyed the book and would recommend it : weird, compelling, empathetic, and fun. I look forward to reading Drayden’s next book, and the ones after that.