Sometimes they walk among us. Sometimes they empower us. They try to trick us, or don’t care for us, or don’t even notice we’re there. Whatever their agendas, the gods of fantasy literature rarely make characters’ lives any easier. Sometimes, they’re even willing to descend from on high to get their divine hands dirty. Inspired by the brilliant television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—in which the old gods are at war with the gods of modernity—here are 32 books in which deities take direct action.
The Inheritance Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin (3 books)
N. K. Jemisin recently won the Hugo Award for Best Novel with The Fifth Season, but she earned her first Hugo nomination for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first book of The Inheritance Trilogy. It’s an examination of godhood, colonization, power, enslavement, art, love, family, and more, as gods move in, through, and around the narrative of each book. In a world where gods have been chained and used as weapons by a ruling dynastic family, Across generations, we follow the gods and godlings who walk this world, seeking to escape bondage, seeking redemption for past wrongs, and seeking forgiveness for sins unknown. Jemisin pokes at questions of character, power, humanity, and more, in cutting, beautiful prose. You can now read the whole series in one go in a hefty omnibus edition.
The Divine Cities Trilogy, by Robert Jackson Bennett (3 books)
Concluding with this month’s City of Miracles, Robert Jackson Bennett’s trilogy is a generations-long exploration of colonization, family, rage, love, children, growing up, and growing old in a world where gods once walked the earth. Nations rose and fell on the whims of the Divinities, who favored the men and women of The Continent, building magnificent, miraculous things for their people, gifting them abilities and powers beyond mortal ken—which the Continent promptly used to enslave the country of Saypur across the sea. Only when a Saypuri general known as the Kaj learned how to kill Divinities, did the tides turn. Seventy years later, the gods dead and gone, City of Stairs opens with the Continent now under the yoke of Saypur. Except, the gods may not be as dead as once thought, and it’s up to a small, bookish spy named Shara and her hulking brute of a secretary named Sigrud to find out what really happened to them. Examining the tense relationship between god and follower, country and corruption, Bennett’s series juggles world-ending crises with smaller moments of humanity and growth.
The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden
This debut, out in June, has something for every SFF reader, and we’re not just saying that. It welds together urban fantasy, epic fantasy, horror, and science fiction in the futuristic South African city of Port Elizabeth. A hallucinogenic drug (possibly fueled by deific powers), a robot uprising, a little girl with every right to be angry at the world, and an ancient goddess looking to win followers and regain her rightful place in the world (that would be ruling it), even if it takes the blood and bone of all the humans around her to do it—Nicky Drayden is throwing everything at the wall, and you won’t believe how much of it sticks. The characters will enchant you, the bloodthirsty goddess and the closeted trans government official and the young queer boy and the gentle A.I. alike, and the vibrance of the setting and the velocity of the storytelling will knock your socks off. This novel is going to blow up. Pre-order it, and say you read it when.
Paperback $7.88 | $9.99
The Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erikson (10 books)
If you consider yourself a connoisseur of fantasy, you simply must know about Steven Erikson’s 10-volume magnum opus, The Malazan Book of the Fallen (though 10 is deceptive; there are also sidequels and novellas set in the same universe). It is the very definition of epic: spanning hundreds of thousands of years, it’s cast is sprawling and its gods are many, and each has their own plans in motion. Whether they’ve been around for 400,000 years, or are recently ascended, Erikson uses his deities to examine the tension between what it means to be human and what it means to lose your humanity in the face of godliness. Adherents to this series might scare you off with talk of needing to read each volume multiple times, but don’t be too intimidated. Jump into the first book, Gardens of the Moon, and immerse yourself in a 500-level fantasy the likes of which you’ve probably never encountered outside of Gene Wolfe.
Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer
Another debut, this one set in the magical, massive rainforest of Canopy, where 13 gods watch over their faithful at the top of the trees, keeping them safe, and safeguarding their interests. Unar, a young orphan, comes to the temple of Audblayin, goddess of life, and pledges that one day, when Audblayin is reborn as a man, she will become their bodyguard. When Audblayin passes away, Unar’s mettle is tested, as she seeks to locate the newly reborn god in Canopy, and finds herself not only in the realm of the other gods, but soon climbing down below the treetops, where older and darker deities lurk.
The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, by Brian Staveley (4 books)
Staveley’s epic fantasy, continued in this year’s Skullsworn, centers on the children of an emperor whose lives are thrown into chaos in the wake of his death. In this world, humanity is only the newest in a long line of sentient beings, preceded by the cold, emotionless Csestriim and, before them, the primal Nevariim, all of them under the watch of the Old Gods and the Young. While the original trilogy has all these different layers of peoples at war, the gods run through each book, possessing, influencing, and using humanity to their own ends. Philosophically inclined, with steadfast but gorgeous prose, Stanley’s series is epic in scale but fresh in ideas.
The Olympus Bound Series, by Jordanna Max Brodsky (2 books)
An ongoing series from Orbit, Jordanna Max Brodsky’s Olympus Bound works in a similar vein to American Gods, focusing on deities of the old world adjusting to and living in the our modern one one. In the first book, The Immortals, once-mighty goddess Artemis, still immortal but her powers much diminished, is living a quiet life in Manhattan as a woman named Selene DiSilva. She may no longer be a deity, but she has made it her mission to protect women. One day, she stumbles upon a young woman murdered in cold blood and crowned in a laurel wreath, a ritual that suggests a connection of worship of ancient gods—aka, Selene’s relatives. Her ancient rage and abilities awakening, she sets out to make things right, as Brodsky maneuvers the gods and goddesses of old in a chess match of wits, skill, and violence in the 21st century Manhattan.
The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone (5 books)
Gladstone’s series of five novels (so far; book six is due this summer) takes place in a world of its own, in the years after the God Wars, when the deities rose up against the Craftsmen and Craftswomen whose command of magic threatened to replace them in the hearts of their subjects. The Craft practitioners broke the gods upon their knees, and those that didn’t die, fled. Gladstone imagines magic as law, and law as magic, as humanity and deity alike navigate a world where divinity is now commodified, economized, and restricted by so many laws and ordinances—and also practiced, in secret, by those who once worshipped, or those who wish to worship once again. Start with Three Parts Dead (or grab all five for about the same price in an ebook omnibus) and find yourself enjoying stories in which the finer points of magical zoning laws unfold into a thrilling fantasy conspiracy.
The Just City, by Jo Walton (3 books)
In Walton’s Thessaly trilogy, the Greek goddess Athena orchestrates a grand thought experiment. Snatching people from all over space-time (human and A.I. alike), she puts into practice Plato’s ideal Republic, bringing ten thousand children and hundreds of teachers to the Just City in the hopes they will come together to create an idealistic community where everyone may become their best selves. Walton tells this tale only she could, with idealists, teachers, philosophers, machine minds, and gods all striving to create a true utopia—but of course, one being’s utopia is another being’s dystopia.
What books do you recommend for fans of American Gods?