The Prey of Gods. By Nicky Drayden. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
Hidden Legacy #2: White Hot. By Ilona Andrews. Avon. $7.99.
A complete mishmash of forms, genres and topics that almost pulls off the combination and is exciting to read even when it falls short, Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods is an unusual debut novel that is never quite sure whether it is science fiction or fantasy, behaves like a blend of the two, and comes across as not quite either one. The title is the first of many things here that almost work – call it “Gods’ Prey” and you would have a better sense of the pun on “pray” and of a major element of the convoluted plot, which does indeed involve gods (one in particular) preying on humans. There are ways in which The Prey of Gods channels Neil Gaiman and Richard Kadrey, but it lacks Gaiman’s flippancy and inevitable references to other works and Kadrey’s ultra-dark worldview and jackhammer narrative style. Instead it has some of the grotesqueries that both these more-established authors do so well, as in a scene in which a demigoddess named Sydney (Sydney?) consumes a human meal while watching a favorite black-and-white movie (that’s Kadrey) and another, in the very first chapter, in which a drug makes it possible for a crab and dolphin to have gay sex – followed in the second chapter by a robot developing consciousness while watching the sex scene (that’s Gaiman). The Prey of Gods is packed, simply packed, with characters and plot strands and adventures of all sorts. Hallucinogenic drugs (which let humans tap into long-dormant abilities in addition to giving users vivid hallucinations) plus ancient gods trying to return to power plus robots plus – well, there are plenty of standard SF/fantasy tropes here, but Drayden’s skill lies in using the standard elements without making them feel like clichés. Drayden tries a little too hard to be “with it” in terms of social issues (poor vs. middle-class living conditions) and a diverse cast: gays, a transvestite character, someone with multiple sclerosis. And the primary villain, the aforementioned Sydney, is a bit too much of a cackle-and-twist-your-evil-mustache type (or, in her case, preen-your-evil-feathers type) to be fully involving; the hint that she is secretly lonely is scarcely enough to give her much motivation beyond the obvious one of regaining great power by committing atrocities. The rest of the characters, though, are far better developed, which is one of the book’s major strengths. The novel is set in South Africa, and the question of whether robots – subject to discrimination and treatment as inferior beings – reflect the nation’s troubled past, and its attempts to move beyond it, is a persistent undercurrent here. Readers will quickly notice that there is no plot, or rather there are multiple plots: this book is more about scene-setting and character delineation than about anything actually happening, but at the same time it is an adventure, or rather a series of adventures, that will intrigue readers as they get whipsawed from one narrative perspective to the next and the one after that. There is plenty of gore and violence in The Prey of Gods, and plenty of non-physical violence (illegal mind reading, memory wiping) that is just as upsetting as the physical type (torching a whole township and killing tens of thousands of people). It is not necessarily overtly bad characters doing the bad things, and that is one intriguing element of the book: Nomvula, a young Zulu girl, appears to be the only one who can stop Sydney, provided she gets some crucial help; but even her powers are not unalloyed positive ones. Nomvula needs to team up with some other oddball characters, from a newly self-aware AI construct to a cross-dressing politician, to have a chance of preventing an all-new (but really old and re-emerging) time of turmoil. Drayden’s writing creaks at times: she is entirely too dependent on coincidences to move the plot at certain key points, and her final chapter struggles to provide a wholly predictable “twist” ending. By and large, though, her pacing is effective enough to keep things barreling along. Genetic manipulation (science fiction) here meets ancient folklore (fantasy), and the notion of a potential queen of terror plotting her return to power while working in a nail salon is just one of the many outré elements of an intricate, convoluted multi-plot book whose strands almost come seamlessly together. Drayden is certainly onto something here, or several somethings, and The Prey of Gods is a pleasure to read (if at times a somewhat guilty one), even when it sometimes strains the boundaries of the willing suspension of disbelief.
The second Hidden Legacy novel, White Hot, is much simpler and more-straightforward fare. The wife-and-husband team of Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, writing as Ilona Andrews, here simply continues the story of Nevada Baylor, magic-possessing human lie detector and protector of the city of Houston through her supernatural powers and her detective agency. This is a straightforward paranormal romance, with the usual odd-couple pairing of a woman who knows what she wants but is not sure with whom she wants it – and a man she wants but doesn’t think she should want. As Nevada puts it to her mom, “He’s bad for me. Why do I have to like a man who’s bad for me? Why couldn’t I have found someone who is solid and normal and not whatever the hell he is?” The answer, of course, is obvious in context. This “he” is Connor “Mad” Rogan, top-rank magic user, billionaire, and unimaginably hot male who, readers will not be surprised to find out in a single intense sex scene, is “corded with muscle. And hung. Oh dear God.” The whole book is written at this level and is, on the face (and other body parts) of it, immensely silly. But it is not really meant to be taken seriously: it is a thrill ride, yes, but one that sits so comfortably in its genre that readers will be able to predict pretty much all the ups and downs, twists and turns of the roller-coaster plot and will not care about any of the predictability, much as riders of a real roller coaster know just what is in store and enjoy it all anyway if they are inclined to board in the first place. There is a certain amount of déjà vu in White Hot that makes the (+++) book a trifle disappointing by its own standards, notably the fact that the bad guys here are the same baddies who almost destroyed Houston before – in the first book of the series, Burn for Me. And the book's cover, again by its own standards and those of the genre, is a trifle disappointing as well, with the usual hot guy holding the usual hot gal from behind, except that the arm with which she is reaching back to caress his neck is bent at an angle that is just barely possible – the arm appears to be broken, or on the verge of breaking. This is not, however, the sort of anatomical detail on which readers (or Nevada) will be interested in focusing. White Hot is most fun when the characters are confronting each other and speaking in over-the-top language that is not supposed to be laughable, as when one nasty woman tells Nevada, regarding Rogan, "He doesn't care about you beyond the fleeting benefit you can provide. And when he is done, he'll discard you in the back of his closet, where you will linger, forgotten and still hoping, while your dreams wither and die one by one." Of course people talk like this all the time – in the Hidden Legacy world, anyway. Accept this book for what it is and no more, and enjoy it strictly on that basis, and you will have a pleasurable time and will look forward to the next novel, Wildfire. But do not think too much about any events or characters here, or your brain cells will wither and die one by one.
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