Book Review: The Prey of Gods

In a future South Africa, writer Nicky Drayden deftly mixes gods and robots and shows us how they and humans deal with change

<i>The Prey of Gods</i>

Gods and robots. In a work of science fiction, they might seem a motor oil-and-vinegar mix: one fueled by science, the other running on magic and belief, and so not a natural blend. But in this debut novel from accomplished short story writer Nicky Drayden, the mythic and the mechanical mesh as smoothly as servo gears in a security droid. That's due largely to Drayden's understanding of the creatures that occupy the space between those two: human beings. She gets people, and she gets them right on the page, portraying them in all their complications and contradictions, doing the things they shouldn't and not doing the things they should, keeping secrets from and hurting the ones they love, wrestling with their identities.

The flawed figures in The Prey of Gods range from a Zulu girl all but abandoned by her traumatized mother to a diva superstar of Beyoncé magnitude, from a teenage boy just awakening to his true feelings for his BFF to a rising politico under the thumb of his ambitious mother who would really rather put on a dress and sing with the diva. Their paths all cross in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, almost 50 years down the line, when everyone has a helper bot – part smartphone, part valet, part pet – and the hot new recreational drug of choice makes you see yourself as an animal. Drayden deftly guides us through the lives of these characters (plus a few others) and their respective struggles with who they are and what they're meant to be, so that even before the futuristic devices and fantasy elements take over and shift the story into hyperdrive – Did I mention the demigoddess in hiding among the mortals who's fed up with doing rich ladies' nails and hatches a malicious plot to reclaim her full divine power and status? – the characters' vulnerabilities and questioning natures draw us close to them. They'd be captivating without going through what are some mighty dramatic changes. (It turns out the drug isn't just a hallucinogen, the demigoddess isn't the only one with divinity in her family tree, and the bots aren't as mindless as they first appear.)

Of course, it's the heightened level of the transformations that supply the adventure, the drama, and much of the fun. (The rest of the fun comes from Drayden's cheeky sense of humor, which she's able to voice in different ways for different characters.) But what makes The Prey of Gods work as more than a page-turner is Drayden's attention to the meaning we attach to change. Here, pretty much everyone evolves – even the bots – and whether the evolution involves sexual identity, supernatural powers, sentience, or godhood, it raises questions of purpose and responsibility. What are our obligations, to ourselves and to those around us – especially those who have been generous to or made sacrifices for us? When the characters here confront these questions and act for good, they prove to be more than "the prey of gods." They've evolved into heroes.

The Prey of Gods

by Nicky Drayden
Harper Voyager, 400 pp., $15.99

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