Last year, Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods blew the doors of science fiction and fantasy off their hinges, blending a diverse array of elements into a madcap Afrofuturist romp. If you expected she’d pump the brakes on her sophomore effort, or maybe just that she’d run out of ideas, well, friend, you were mistaken.
With Temper, Drayden has solidified herself as not only a fresh and riveting voice in SFF, but as a force to be reckoned with. With a now definably signature style, she returns us to a setting similar to that of The Prey of Gods—an alt-future Cape Town, South Africa—for an entirely different kind of story.
Even more directly than its predecessor, Temper paints a picture of society at odds with itself. In this world, science and religion exist at opposite ends of a spectrum. Everything and everyone, in fact, is a study in opposition: most everyone exists as one-half of a set of twins, each sibling set splitting between them a yin and yang of vice and virtue.
The degree of a person’s vice or virtue determines their social identity and, subsequently, their future prospects. Brothers Kasim and Auben struggle with a rare balance: they are six-and-one twins, meaning Kasim carries six virtues and one vice, and Auben carries the opposite. All the charisma Auben possesses is not enough to overcome six vices in the Cape. He is all but assured a lowly future, while Kasim can look forward to escaping their humble, hard-scrabble lifestyle.
Their journeys down life’s path will be divergent yet predictible—until things begin to go very wrong. To reveal too much would ruin the intricate, magic, and manic web Drayden has woven, but it is safe to say Kasim and Auben, raised “secular” by their anti-religion mother, become intimately acquainted with the concept of demons and otherworldly entities.
Drayden’s worldbuilding boasts depth and nuance, with details that pull taut a sprawling narrative, both figuratively and literally. Twins, for example, must stay close to each other or suffer painful, traumatic “proximity breaks.” So, even as their varying vices and virtues eat away at their relationship, Kasim and Auben are bound, intimately and necessarily, to one another.
Yes, the world is fascinating, but, as was true in The Prey of Gods, the true strength of this novel is its cast of characters. Auben and Kasim are complex and difficult creations, and they share an equally complicated bond, one that alternately compels and repulses them. But they are not the only fascinating pair, and the others in their orbit share the same attractions and animosities: their mother and aunt, their two uncles, their respective love interests. Within each of these relationship sets is a struggle between dreams and decay that plays out across the low-class “comfy” neighborhoods of the Cape and the middle- and upper-class homes across town.
This is a beautiful story, and a dark one. It is raucous and twisted, a story of upheaval told with vibrant glee. Temper feels real in the ways of the best speculative fiction, as if we’re looking at ourselves in a funhouse mirror, noting the skewed beauty, and blemishes, and all.