The first chapter of Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods ends with drug-induced crab-on-dolphin sex. In between those first pages and the grand finale, this mile-a-minute debut spotlights, in no particular order:
- sentient robots
- mass murder
- the wrath of demigods
- African folklore
- mind control
- pop music
- exploding gender norms
- more murder
- genetic engineering
- a plague of dik-diks
From beginning to end, this journey into a near-future South Africa blasts along, speakers set to 11, a volume that at times distorts and disorients, but always intrigues, and occasionally knocks you off of your feet. On her website, Drayden credits favorite authors Neal Stephenson, Terry Pratchett, and Christopher Moore, and their influence is all over this novel, even as she screams out in a voice all her own.
Her style is utterly unique. There’s a freshness in the tone and pace that ensures The Prey of Gods isn’t just going to be one of the best science fiction (or is it fantasy?) novels of the year, but also, hopefully, a launching point to many more raucous, evocative works from its author.
If it isn’t clear yet, I adored every second of reading this book, not just for what it has, but also for what it doesn’t: a single boring, stock character. The stars of this show are, again, in no particular order:
- A young Zulu girl, whose nascent godlike powers are enough to wipe out her whole village
- An AI robot with emerging sentience and a strong sense of nobility
- A vengeful demigoddess who moonlights as a nail salon technician
- A gay teenager caught between his Xhosa heritage and his feelings for his best friend
- A pop diva whose diamond-hard exterior hides a painful history
- A transgender politician who dreams of an ultragalm life in show business.
All of these narrative threads converge, in unexpected and delightful ways, at a concert in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth, where Sydney, the aforementioned down-on-her-luck demigoddess, has hatched a plan to regain her power and wreak havoc on the unsuspecting human populace.
As schemes go, Sydney’s is slightly convoluted, but that being the custom among disenfranchised megalomaniacs, we’ll allow it. By leveraging advances in genetic manipulation and a far-reaching drug, Godsend, that unlocks long-hidden divine capabilities hidden in the DNA of among those who partake, Sydney plans to sow chaos and cultivate terror. She feeds on belief and negative emotions alike, and she’s not alone. Many of the plot’s most interesting intersections explore the terrible fuel that drives the characters’ innate abilities; from mind control to the ability to heal wounds, the toll wielding them takes on these nascent gods lends a duality to their personalities, complicating and shaping the events around them.
And there is plenty going on around them. Stuff never stops happening in The Prey of Gods, not even after the book is closed, building and building until a quorum of main characters come together in a clash in the streets that involves flying beasts, sentient chimera, tragic romance, a heartrending sacrifice, a whole mess of robots, and a poop joke or two.
What could possibly pull so many disparate narrative threads together? How about writing that will knock your socks off? Each sentence propels, each word choice pops, and each simile has almost certainly never been used before (for example, an aspiring singer’s voice sounds, “like a couple of horny tomcats in a blender”).
The story is told through alternating point-of-view chapters and, unlike other books to capitalize on this trend, there isn’t a single voice you’ll want to skip over. Because of the diversity of the cast, each of their journeys is fascinating, bizarre, and, on more than one occasion, deeply moving.
What Drayden has accomplished is important and impressive, particularly for a debut. She has populated a sci-fi universe with fully fleshed personalities spanning disparate walks of life, some more underrepresented than others, and has made each of them into characters complete and compelling—irreverently funny, beautifully and empathetically drawn. There are depths to The Prey of Gods that make it both an endlessly enjoyable read and the start of something truly promising—not another sci-fi trilogy, but a carrear to follow. I don’t know how one tops a book that opens with crab-dolphin hanky-panky, but I’m dying to find out.