They used to be inseparable. They used to be young, brave and brilliant – amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone. August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi shared everything: songs, secrets, fears and dreams. But 1970s Brooklyn was also a dangerous place, where grown men reached for innocent girls, where mothers disappeared and futures vanished at the turn of a street corner.
Another Brooklyn is a heartbreaking and exquisitely written novel about a fleeting friendship that united four young lives, from one of our most gifted novelists.
Jacqueline Woodson is best known for her many children’s novels, having won any number of awards for them; this isn’t her first foray into adult fiction, but Another Brooklyn is one of the few of her novels that have crossed the Atlantic, and it’s my first foray into her work.
I went into Another Brooklyn expecting a (queer) coming of age tale like any other, about growing up black in Brooklyn. That’s not what this book is; it’s a rather more complicated beast than that, and a rather more interesting one than a straightforward literary bildungsroman. Instead, Another Brooklyn intersperses August as an adult, reflecting on the death of her father, as a frame narrative to looking back on her childhood, aged eight and growing up to go to college; Woodson draws the two strands together across the course of the novel, never losing sight of the fact that this is remembered history, full of regrets, being retold by a character, but also bringing a lot of immediacy to that retelling.
Another Brooklyn is rawly emotional. It isn’t emotional in an adolescent way, but in the way of a soul being bared; reflective and thoughtful, but incredibly powerful in the quiet conveying of the highs and lows of childhood. The blended timeline is a little unclear at the start of the book, as Woodson introduces the grown-up August, the teenage August, and the child August all at once, without separating them into clearly separate periods, but this is very intentional. While across the course of the novel it creates a kind of poetry as she unpicks the three different timelines, bringing everything into focus to give us a powerful picture, the abstraction of the lack of simple chronology really lends an additional boost to an already poetic style to give us a long prose poem in many stanzas, it can be singularly offputting at the start.
Woodson never stints on her characters. Another Brooklyn is essentially August’s story, but it’s also the story of her three friends, each of whom comes from a radically different background and goes in a radically different direction, but who come together for some years in Brooklyn before drifting apart; their friendship and relationships are beautifully conveyed, and their individuality incredibly powerfully realised. But the rest of the cast, from their various parents to the boys they pick up, are all very rapidly fleshed out with an amazing economy of language, Woodson using actions and words rather than August’s reflections for the most part to reveal character, but consistently cutting to the quick of it with that linguistic economy.
Another Brooklyn, by virtue of the story it tells, is a very political book. Woodson doesn’t shy away from that, although her afterword never makes it explicit; this is a story about “what it means to grow up girl in this country” (page 172), and more explicitly what it means to grow up as a black girl. Woodson takes in the toxic masculinity of American culture that visits sexual violence on children and adolescents as readily as it does on adults, and the way that is normalised; she writes about the Nation of Islam not as some strange foreign thing but as a part of the black experience of America, and writes about Islam with a sympathy that many writers fail to find; and she slips queerness in all over the place, without highlighting it, simply as a facet of various characters’ lives.
Another Brooklyn isn’t a political book in the sense of being a manifesto: it’s a political book in the sense of telling a story that is inherently political. It’s a prose poem, an imagined biography, and a beautiful story of coming of age as a black woman in America.
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In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.
I’ve been excited about River of Teeth for a long time; not only is Sarah Gailey a great writer and a good friend, but this is a Western story about (the almost historical real phenomenon of) hippopotamus ranching. A novella… about hippopotamus ranching in the American South. If that concept isn’t enough to make you curious, I’m not sure what would be, honestly. There is one spoiler in this review, in white text after the disclaimer.
River of Teeth is an intense little novella. Essentially, it’s a caper story; Houndstooth is hired to get the feral hippos out of the Mississippi delta, and has to assemble a crew to do so. The start of the novella is the assembly of the crew and the coming together of the plan; it’s from there that Gailey throws in curveballs, ups the stakes, and really drives home the intensity of the plot outside the amazing sexual tension she brings to her writing. The plot gets ever twistier and darker, as Gailey introduces the true danger of the feral hippos in the bluntest way possible, and rather shockingly; and as Houndstooth’s past and present crash together in horrifying ways. River of Teeth simultaneously feels half its length, it’s that much of a quick read pulling one through every page, and twice it’s length, for the emotional intensity.
That emotional intensity is in part induced by the characters. River of Teeth is one of the most diverse books I’ve ever read; it has a core cast of six, of whom only two are white men, one is a nonbinary person of colour, and almost all of whom have queer sexualities, at least in my reading. Every character is fully formed and has a long-standing set of relationships with the other characters; River of Teeth is a bit of a novella of getting the gang back together, but Gailey handles that really well, and the idea of the past of the gang is one that she uses, rather than just applying for sentiment. It’s through these that Gailey injects a thread of humour into the novella; Houndstooth’s tendency to take himself too seriously, Hero’s gentle smiling in the face of… almost everything, Archie’s brilliant sly wit, all cut the tension to bearable levels while still not pretending it isn’t there. Even Cal’s sullen bastardry adds a kind of humour to River of Teeth, because Gailey empathises with him, even if he is still obviously a bastard; this novella has a lot of feeling and heart to it.
River of Teeth has one one romantic relationship, between Houndstooth, our protagonist, and Hero, the nonbinary person of colour; their romance is beautiful and slow-burn and not at all subtle, with Gailey really leaning into it and pursuing it as a wonderfully gentle, mutually pleasurable romantic entanglement. It’s a really sweet thing to read, a man and an enby in a happy relationship together that isn’t judged by anyone else in the book – part of the alternateness of Gailey’s alternate history is a lack of stigma against queer people (and indeed, no racism) – and one that is all too rare.
River of Teeth is one of those books that reads like one is coming home, really; much as the terrifying feral hippos aren’t something I’d want to encounter, Gailey’s vision of an alternate-history United States is one I’d love to live in. Especially if I got to meet Houndstooth and Hero. I really, really strongly recommend this one to you all!
Disclaimer: Sarah Gailey is a friend. Tor.com, the publisher of this novella, sent me a squishy hippo stress toy as promotional material for the novella, although I purchased the novella myself. (Also, if any of you read this and write or find fanfic about Hero and Houndstooth… please send it my way, I love them so much.)
SPOILER: At one point, Hero appears to have been killed. I almost put the book down at that point, despite how much I had until then enjoyed it, feeling almost betrayed. While they are wounded, Gailey very actively does not kill off her nonbinary character.
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Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill. She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction – until she has a vision of a dead girl.
Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows he’s probably dead. Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis – or she’s next.
To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, she’ll need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary – before it changes us and our society, forever.
Back in March, I wrote a piece about Laura Lam as a writer of queer speculative fiction; now, in June, her latest novel, again with queer elements, comes out, Shattered Minds, set in the same world as, and after the events of, False Hearts, although with a different set of characters and little direct connection between the two.
Shattered Minds is a mix of psychological thriller, corporate espionage novel, and heist story; Lam blends the three elements, which are admittedly relatively natural cohabitants, together to create an exciting and interesting plot which moves from one stage into the next very naturally. Underlying everything is the psychological element, with Carina’s extremely violent urges present throughout the book as a threat to those around her and as a kind of visceral violent shock punctuating and puncturing things like camaraderie. That’s paired with Carina’s and Roz’s flashbacks, to Roz’s work with Carina and to Carina’s childhood; both of these build to joint climaxes towards the end of the book which really punch home how much Lam has built a groundwork of violence and ethical questions together into an actually relatively pacific book. The corporate espionage blends seamlessly into the heist as Carina and the Trust work to take down Sudice, the core plot of Shattered Minds, with information an insider sent to Carina; the book follows the Trust unlocking that information and understanding it before deciding how best to use it, and the reactions of Roz and Sudice to this threat.
On the whole, the book is low key. Shattered Minds is tense, but it’s the tension of waiting for the violence, waiting for the extreme action; there are moments throughout of such action, including some which feel very much like classic cyberpunk as hacking involves virtual reality trips and interfaces, but this is largely a psychological exploration. Lam keeps the tension working well throughout the plot, making the reader want to know the answers to the mysteries she has set and seeded; each mystery links in to the rest, in a kind of complex interplay that Lam consistently excels at in her novels.
This introspective approach means Shattered Minds lives or dies by its characters, and Lam makes very sure it lives. With three viewpoint characters, it would have been easy to have them all on one side of the moral equation, or all agreeing to the same value systems; as it is, we also see Roz’s viewpoint, and Lam depicts it with an impressive level of empathy and understanding, without making her evil or heartless but instead someone who very solidly believes they are doing absolutely the right thing. Carina, meanwhile, is a fascinating character who constantly struggles with addiction, self-doubt, and homicidal ideation; Shattered Minds doesn’t shy away from the awfulness of any of this, but instead embraces it, and shows that Carina isn’t a bad person for what she thinks, but is defined, as the rest of the cast are, by what they do.
The third viewpoint character, Dax, is arguably the least morally complex; on the side that Lam expects the reader to be on throughout Shattered Minds, and with a palliative role for much of the book, he could have, in other hands, been a very simple, indeed boring, character. Instead, Shattered Minds gives us an incredibly human, and sympathetic, view of a trans man; Dax’s transness isn’t a central point of the novel but does affect his character, and Lam writes with an incredible power about it, such that a passage where he talks about having brought his body to fit his mind made me spontaneously burst into tears (the bottom of page 281 of the ARC, for reference). Dax’s presence isn’t the only queerness on the page; we also have a gay couple, a pair of secondary although still vital characters, who Lam treats with the respect and dignity she extends to every single one of the compact cast of the book.
Shattered Minds is an absolutely fantastic novel; it balances quiet and loud, action and emotion, brilliantly, and in a very different way to most thrillers and science fiction novels, to stunning effect. I don’t think it’s Laura Lam’s best work (I think that is yet to come, and is going to cement her status as a modern master) but it’s head and shoulders above most of the genres it plays with.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, Pan MacMillan. Laura Lam is a friend, and will be launching Shattered Minds on 22nd June at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street in conversation with Kirsty Logan.
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A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all; a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells.
But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel – and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone. There, lost and forgotten things have lingered and grown. What they have grown into is mighty indeed.
Jeff VanderMeer, perhaps now best known as an anthologist in collaboration with Ann VanderMeer and for his Southern Reach trilogy, has produced a strange new novel, Borne.
VanderMeer’s very public concerns with environmental issues and his approach to humanity’s impact on the world, so evident in The Southern Reach, are doubled down on in Borne: this isn’t a novel of climate change as it will be, but a blended mix of the metaphorical – strange, experimental creatures, wrecked cities ruled over by biotech, a ruined world, and a skyscraper-sized flying bear – and the literal: climate refugees, rising sea levels, poverty and chaos. VanderMeer uses these elements in Rachel’s past and present to create his world, his strange, slightly off-kilter world, with its secrets and lies and dangers, and brings home with it the consequences of climate change in making our world unrecognisably strange to all of us.
The story of Borne doubles down on that; it’s essentially in two parts, although VanderMeer divides it into three. The first part is that in which Rachel finds, and arguably raises, the creature she finds while scavenging in the city, which she names Borne; and the complexities that doing so, and that life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, involve. The second part comes out of a distinct break that happens at the end of this first part (or rather, the first two parts); it would be, unfortunately, rather a severe spoiler to discuss specifics. Borne marries the two parts together well and keeps a singular narrative voice throughout, with Rachel remaining Rachel; VanderMeer’s real strength is that the plot of the is for the most part barely a plot, in terms of actual dramatic events, and a lot of time is spent in emotional reflection and personal introspection, but VanderMeer writes this well, rather better than most literary fiction writers. Those points when he does put in moments of hard action, including combat and dramatic elements of Rachel’s explorations, are fast and brutal; Borne treats its violence much like its sex, as something to be included but not pornographised, to be discussed from the emotional, more than physical, aspects.
The core of the book is questions about personhood, and what being a person means; Borne therefore relies on its characters. There are really only three proper characters in the whole thing, plus a number of background individuals who appear and disappear; our narrator, Rachel, her fellow survivor and partner, Wick, and the strange being Borne. Each is approached very differently as a character, even while they’re only seen through Rachel’s eyes, because she views them each very differently, and the consequences of that are fascinating. Part of that is about VanderMeer’s view of character: rather than being a solipsistic thing, Borne treats character as centred on relationships between people. How one treats and is treated by others defines one, in this metric; for a time, Rachel is thrust into a position of not being around anyone else, and becomes essentially an unperson, in a fascinating way, and the development of Borne especially is so shaped by Rachel and Wick that it’s a fascinating way to raise children.
In the end, Borne has a similar kind of approach to weird and environmental themes as Southern Reach, but a very different approach to narrative itself; and VanderMeer proves his versatility by continuing to carry it off excellently.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day – so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.
The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s’ suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching over the shoulders of four 11-year-olds – Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
Hogarth have been, since 2015, putting out retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays by notable modern authors; they started with Jeanette Winterson’s Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale; and have also published the magnificent Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, a truly great Tempest reworking; Vinegar Girl, Ann Tyler’s terrible Taming of the Shrew that doubles down on the misogyny of the original; and Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice retelling, Shylock Is My Name, which I’ve not read. Their latest is Tracy Chevalier’s reworking of Othello into a 1970s grade school…
Othello is a hard play to rework in a modern setting. It relies so much on what is not very obviously racist stereotyping, and also on racist attitudes towards its titular character; Chevalier, unlike Atwood, has therefore chosen a period setting, in this case 1970s affluent Washington, D.C., that makes the racism easy to portray – and a little more distant from the present. Osei is a new student in the school, son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and Chevalier uses the intensity of grade school – where relationships are made and broken in an hour, where feelings are raw and immature – to restage her Othello in the course of a single day.
There are drawbacks to this approach. Primarily, New Boy seems perpetually unsure how mature its sixth graders are; their claims to have had sex are obviously intended as overstatement, and yet the way Ian, in particular, is presented as sexually predatory, and the way the girls are presented as fully pubescent, seems to belong to somewhat older children. This tangles the plot, and drags the reader out repeatedly; setting the book with even slightly older children, by a few years, would have worked rather better. There is also an unexpected homophobic sideswipe; Chevalier isn’t wrong that these were the attitudes of the period but, since this is literally the only time queerness appears in New Boy, a half page of reported homophobia feels, to say the least, excessive.
The hardest part of New Boy to discuss is the plot. After all, it’s the plot of Othello. We know the plot; Chevalier didn’t invent the plot; she only translated it. So the question is, I suppose, is that translation good? And the answer is, it’s mixed. The sense of drama is incredibly strong, despite knowing how the story ends; the stakes feel high, even on a grade school playground, where duels to the death are reduced to fist fights. But incongruities – like Mimi’s silent compliance – feel more strained, and the credulity of Osei to Ian feels stranger and much less in character.
There’s also one significant flaw common to most approaches to Othello, and nothing to do with New Boy‘s setting: the characterisation of Ian, Chevalier’s Iago stand-in. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Ian is simply a bully; Chevalier doesn’t really go into it more than that, and even the sections from Ian’s perspective make one feel like he’s simply doing harm for the sake of doing harm, rather than for any more explicable or understandable reason, something that originates in the play but is painfully obvious when we get multiple pages of his point of view of events at a time here.
This is in marked contrast with Chevalier’s treatment with the rest of the cast of New Boy. Each of her other characters is treated sympathetically, from Osei and Dee, through Ian’s unwilling accomplice Mimi, to Casper, the golden boy who Ian uses to enact his plan to ruin Osei; they’re interesting, with compactly told but very full back stories and rich inner lives, that animate the story and plot such that we’re actually affected, anew, by a story we all know. Osei’s story is especially interesting, and serves as a hook for all sorts of other stories – his radical Black Panther-sympathising sister Sisi I would especially like to learn more about, but also what his father actually does as a diplomat moving around so much.
In the end, New Boy is a rather good retelling of Othello, suffering some of the flaws of the original and adding in more beside, while enhancing the characterisation of a number of backgrounded characters in Shakespeare’s work and with Chevalier much more sympathetic to the titular character. This isn’t at the Hagseed end of Hogarth’s set, but it’s much nearer it than the Vinegar Girl end.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
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Rather than reviewing these books, I’m just going to talk about some of the things they do; specifically, some of the wonderfully queer things they do. Since I am covering both An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, there will be SPOILERS in this post, as well as TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of rape and sexual assault. The blurb of An Accident of Stars can be found here.
These books are the portal fantasy of my heart. In a way that something like Every Heart A Doorway appears to have been for others, the Manifold Worlds tapped into everything I loved about portal fantasy, everything books like Narnia ever set up for me, and also into everything I never saw in portal fantasy: real consequences, real people, real lives. This is a series that engages with issues of mental health, consent, different manifestations of queerness, power, perceptions and how they can be clouded, and even the very idea of narrative; that is a backbone of the whole duology, in fact. The Manifold Worlds are meaty, meaty books to get your teeth into.
Let’s start by talking about queerness. This is a series which not only has multiple trans characters, but it also depicts multiple ways of being trans, and ways of relating to one’s body. Yena, who we meet in An Accident of Stars, is a trans woman, who used a magical ritual to bring her body in line with her self-image as a woman. This is, per the worldbuilding Meadows does in her primary secondary world, a fairly standard thing; not exactly common, but no stigma attaches to it, and it’s just something you can do. However, another character, Naruet, a trans man we meet in A Tyranny of Queens, does not wish to change his body; mention is made early on of his binder, and later in the book he talks explicitly about not wanting to change his body, for various reasons. Again, this isn’t judged; it’s simply his choice, and that’s all that matters: he’s a man with this body, and that’s fine too. Meadows has built a world so incredibly powerfully accepting for trans people in a way reality isn’t, yet, and reading it feels like coming home.
This is also a world where sexuality is seen as much more fluid, and polyamorous bisexuality the assumed norm. In both An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, Meadows gives us multiple models of relationships in various forms, whether couples or larger groups, of various gender combinations, and none are valued or devalued; the central theme is trust and mutual respect and openness. Meadows makes it a point to build every good relationship on those foundations, and reveals, in A Tyranny of Queens, that a key relationship was built on manipulation and lies and shows how much damage that can do to everyone around the manipulator, but especially their primary victim.
Indeed, The Manifold Worlds deals with sexual assault and other kinds of trauma on multiple occasions; sexual assault is most explicitly a theme in A Tyranny of Queens, but trauma of all kinds runs through both books, including of physical injury, complete culture shock, and the result of abuse. Saffron, one of the viewpoint characters and protagonists, has PTSD which becomes gradually more pronounced in An Accident of Stars, climaxing in her treatment by a counsellor in A Tyranny of Queens and the complete failure of those around her to understand her PTSD, except for a character who was victim of a rape, but not believed by anyone; Meadows doesn’t expicitly make statements, but does expect the reader to draw a particular conclusion. Further, Leoden, the primary antagonist of An Accident of Stars, is revealed to have been literally brainwashed and mindwiped by his consort Kadeja, who takes over the role of primary antagonist for A Tyranny of Queens; the reactions of different characters to this revelation – including disbelief, blaming him, and blaming themselves for not protecting him or seeing it – are portrayed with an incredible complexity, and an emotional empathy which doesn’t stop Meadows from coming down on one side of the issue. Trauma isn’t the only engagement with neurodiversity in The Manifold Worlds; the aforementioned trans man, Naruet, is portrayed as being autistic, and characters in A Tyranny of Queens adapt to his needs and requirements virtually without comment or without pressuring him to neurotypicality.
On a more purely narrative level, The Manifold Worlds is interesting for how it deals with the idea of narrative. In both books, there is the order of the Shavaktiin, “mystics and storytellers who believe that history is shaped by human stories” (to quote the glossary), who both observe and involve themselves in events as recorders and as influencers. Meadows plays with the way the Shavaktiin abrogate agency to the Great Story whilst also having to exercise it all the time in their choice of interventions in service to it; An Accident of Stars, in fact, turns on the idea of how much agency Shavaktiin are allowed to display, and A Tyranny of Queens takes up that thread, with interesting consequences for what we might call genre-savviness, only rather less genre-specific and more related to the shape of human narrative.
On the whole, portal fantasy doesn’t have major traumatic psychological consequences for the characters, and the portals they step through are usually into worlds far more familiarly normative. Foz Meadows, in The Manifold Worlds, throws those norms completely out of the window, and does so with gusto and relish; reading these books was like coming home to me, to a place I was welcome and known in, and where the friends I know exist and have a home too. For all the marginalised people out there, I cannot recommend these books highly enough.
By day, Rupert Wong – former triad soldier and sorcerer turned chef – prepares delicious meals from human meat for a dynasty of powerful ghouls in Kuala Lumpur; by night, he’s a seneschal and arbitrator for the Ten Chinese Hells. It’s a living, if not much of one.
When Ao Qin – Dragon of the South, god of the seas – smashes in Rupert’s window and demands he investigate his daughter and her mortal husband’s murders, his peaceful (if not particularly comfortable) life comes to an end.
Caught up in a war between pantheons, shipped around the world, going toe-to-toe with Elder Gods From Outside Space And Time, and always taking the time to read the fine print, Rupert’s going to need all his wits and a lot of luck to survive.
Abaddon Books has a number of shared universes with multiple writers dabbling in their continuities, much like the Marvel and DC stables; one of their more recent worlds is Gods and Monsters, pioneered by horror writer Chuck Wendig. It’s therefore appropriate that Cassandra Khaw has also joined this universe, with Food of the Gods. Food of the Gods was originally e-published as two novellas, one the sequel of the other; this collected edition brings the two together.
Each follows the adventures of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef; although Khaw may be misusing this moniker, since while Rupert butchers, prepares, and cooks human flesh for various entities, he himself does not seem to partake, with possible exceptions of tasting what he is himself cooking. Food of the Gods has a broad palate, taking in Malaysian cuisine, British staples, Western failures to cook South-East Asian food, Greek delicacies and more; one of Khaw’s great strengths is in her ability to write these foods with a deft touch that really makes the mouth water and nostrils twitch, even when the chief ingredient is homo sapiens. That’s of a piece with Khaw’s generally sense-centred writing; things have scents, sounds, feels, even tastes, as much as they’re seen, really invoking a kind of vividness through the writing that wholly engages the reader.
The voice of the book is also engaging; we’re told the story by Rupert Wong himself in the first person, and Food of the Gods does not stint on asides to the reader, on Malay and slang (the reader is addressed as ang moh throughout – or “white person”), and on the humour; Khaw often undercuts the most tense moments with Rupert’s ill-timed jokes. This combination can take a little while to get into, but rapidly it becomes a very individual narrative voice that demands the reader’s sympathy for Rupert and one’s concern for his future. Khaw also manages to make each of her secondary characters sound individual, a risky business with such a strong narrative voice; but each is distinct and unique, and strange in their own, divine ways, without falling back into cliche or simple cultural stereotypes or expectations.
The mixture of places, pantheons and gods on display in the book makes that even more impressive; Food of the Gods utilises Malaysiana folklore and traditional religion, Greek and Slavic gods, invented beings from the fiction of the 20th century, and even gods conjured less from specific beliefs than generalised prayers. This melange of different ideas of and approaches to divinity is fascinating and reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods and Hogfather (the Oh God of Hangovers, for instance), but Khaw takes it in a different, stranger, and altogether darker direction than simply a discussion of faith and reality; there’s more of an interest in what faith is, and she engages with that quite fascinatingly.
The plot of Food of the Gods is, then, perhaps the weakest link. The first half of the book feels a little contrived and not sure what it wants to be; originally published as Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, it does an excellent job of introducing us to the character and the world he inhabits, but the combination of murder mystery and high stakes politics doesn’t really hang together, and the plot doesn’t seem quite sure of its scale. The second half, Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth, hangs together more by virtue of being told it does than anything else; an awful lot of it feels like filler, fleshing out the world or the pantheon but not actually advancing the plot or events. That they’re also very obviously two novellas perhaps suggests Abaddon should have published this as two slimmer volumes, rather than one seemingly-single story.
In the end, though, Food of the Gods isn’t there for its plot, it’s there for its voice, and Rupert Wong is an incredible invention with a very distinctive and fascinating voice; I want to know where Khaw plans to take him next!
Disclaimer: This review was based on a final copy sent by the publisher, Rebellion Books.
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