Book Review: The Godless (Children #1) – Ben Peek

‘This is how it begins,’ he said, rising. ‘People work on your sympathy and you are asked for favours. You are manipulated emotionally or intellectually, or that’s the intention; you can see when it’s happening most of the time. But even when you do it remains flattery, a tip to your ego, because you have more power than they. In the end you do it because of that. You solve their problem. But a new one arises, and another, and they ask again and again and eventually – because you tire of doing it for free all the time – you ask a small token from them to somehow even out the equation. It’s then that the relationship changes, that the power you have alters how you appear to them and they appear to you.

‘Some days, I imagine it is how the gods found themselves to be gods, to be worshiped, and why they became distant like they did.’

The Godless: Ben Peek

The Godless (Children #1) – 5 out of 5 stars

Damn I loved this book. Easily one of the best I’ve read this year – up there with Wool and the MaddAddam trilogy. This is a fantasy novel as it should be done. Engaging characters, amazing setting, great story…

Freaking good.

Seriously, forgetting my moderate expectations for this book, it was better than I even hoped it would be. I’ve only read one short story by Peek before, and whilst I liked the writing style… I didn’t really enjoy the story itself. This story though? I will be picking up the second and third books in this trilogy as soon as they are available; pre-ordering if possible. I’ll be checking out Peek’s back catalogue. I’ll be setting up camp outside Peek’s bathroom to take photos… ok, maybe not this last one. Maybe not.

So good.

I’m just over half way through my #AusReadingApril personal challenge, this is the fourth book by an Australian author I’ve finished, and this is easily the best so far. Depending on how two other books go (I’ve just cracked the binder on Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson and I have Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen to read by the 15th of May), this is a front runner for my Gemmell Award vote (Morningstar).

Did I say it was good yet?

It’s good.

Do you want to check out whether the book appeals to you? The first 5 chapters are available for free on Tor.com. Heck, the blurb comes from Jeff VanderMeer – what more can you ask for?

Read it, and if you like it too let me know. If you don’t… you’re wrong. What the hell is your problem? (Actually I’m well aware that tastes differ, I’m just very enthusiastic about this book right now – peace 🙂 ).

Synopsis

The Godless is the start of what will clearly be an epic fantasy trilogy. The book is set thousands of years after the War of the Gods, in a world in which the bloodied and wounded bodies of the gods litter the world like enormous fallen soldiers. The corpses of these dead and dying gods have changed the geography; for example, the dead ocean god Leviathan’s blood has raised seas levels and turned the sea black. Since the death of the gods, their powers have randomly appeared in mortals (called the Cursed), gifting them with strange abilities and exceptionally long life (immortality?).

This story is set in the wealthy trading city of Mireea; built on the spine of Ger, the God of the Elements who lays dying deep beneath the city. Mireea is a city preparing for siege, arming its populace, fortifying its walls and hiring mercenary bands. Mireea is about to be attacked by the marching Leeran army, an army with a dark reputation, a practice of appalling torture, and a routine of terrible ritual and cannibalism. The Leeran army seek to reclaim Ger’s power for themselves, and the population of Mireea is in the way.

In this first book we follow three characters. Ayae, a young woman who is dismayed as she discovers she is one of the Cursed when she suddenly manifests unusual abilities – beginning with an immunity to fire. Bueralan, an exiled Baron and the leader of a band of mercenary saboteurs who is sent on difficult missions and behind enemy lines. And Zaifyr, an ancient member of the Cursed who gained his powers shortly after the gods started to die (making him thousands of years old) with the ability to see and speak with the dead. Through these characters we are expertly told the history of the gods, the actions and crimes of the Cursed since the gods died, and the motivations of the cult-like Leeran army as it advances on Mireea.

Ok, I guess I better get a bit more specific about why I liked this book so much.

Review

This was a delicious, unhurried, languid read. I wasn’t burning through the pages in an unputdownable frenzy (although I do like those kind of books also), rather I slowly devoured each tension-laden sentence slowly and carefully to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and stopping occasionally to reflect on what I read. It encouraged a thorough and complete read, full immersion in the text instead of skipping from one explosion to the next. It’s not an Easter egg that’s sweet and eaten in a minute while you chat with friends; its a dark chocolate mud cake savoured with a long black coffee, alone. After having read a bunch of quick and sugary Easter eggs recently, it was a delight to enjoy something more substantial.

Damn, now I’m hungry.

This style fed through somewhat into the actions of characters – conversations are paced, almost relaxed (I cannot remember a moment of raised voices – there may not be an exclamation point in the whole book*), but laden with meaning – when people are talking, they are actually saying something. There is no little in the way of idle dialogue between characters in the book, everything has a point. The siege preparation itself is a slow building tension, a pressure and suspense that’s controlled, but constantly increasing. At least till the third act that is, when the Leeran army finally arrives and action starts to race.

Peek has created an exceptionally deep, rich world here, and written a tale that does the setting justice. Setting, history, and plot are to some extent more important than character in this The time we spend with each of the viewpoint characters reveals something new (or old) and broadens our understanding of the some aspect of the story. The Ayae storyline is wholly in the city, and we see how she is simultaneously rejected by the populace (as one of the newly cursed), but also gently courted by the existing power-players. She is scared of her abilities, hurt by the rejection by her townsfolk and desperate to find a cure. Zaifyr’s story is at the other end of Ayae’s – he’s lived with his abilities for thousands of years, he’s been worshiped and feared. Our time with Zaifyr gives historical depth, and a sense of the place that the Cursed have in the world. Bueralan’s storyline is outside the city and his history brings us more of the external story drivers; the Leeran army, the sunken cathedral of Ger, even some of the mundane feudal-style politics (mainly through glimpses at his history).

There are some heavy themes in The Godless, obviously a number relate to theological considerations such as the power of religion and the terrible things humanity can do (and has done) in the name of worship. There is also a strong theme around power – the hunt for it and how having it changes how you are treated and dealt with. I might also be reading more into the book than the author intended, but I thought the ‘invading army attacking a population purely to get access to the powerful resource under the city’ might be an extended metaphor for certain recent military actions in oil rich nations… That’s probably just me.

With the Hugo/puppies kafuffle being topical at the moment I thought that I should touch on sexism and racism… and I’m happy to note that I didn’t see any of either in this book. Fantasy roles that you might traditionally consider male dominated (political leaders, military roles etc) seemed to be almost roughly equally distributed, and the population of Mireea appears to be racially diverse. For example, Ayae (and the other protagonists) are people of colour, the political leader of Mireea is Lady Wargun, and Bueralan’s mercenaries are a racially and gender mixed group. This diversity seems effortless; unforced. It isn’t brought to your attention, it just ‘is’. Indeed the fact that the city leader is a woman is only mentioned once (beyond calling her Lady), and in the context of the dialogue it gently suggests that the rest of the world might not be as equal or progressive as Mireea.


This book might move a little slowly for some. It’s not wall-to-wall wizards or dragons or sword-fighting. However this is a thought provoking and profound novel that serves as an excellent jumping off point for the trilogy. The fictional history is rich, the fantastical elements are creative, and the characters are complex.

I strongly recommend it.

If you do read it, I’d love to hear what you thought. Do you agree? Am I too enthusiastic? Should I stop living in the author’s roof crawlspace?

Cheers

KT

*After I made the comment about exclamations, I decided to do a search on the first five chapters – I can confirm that there are no exclamation points in the first five chapters of the book. 🙂

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