Fifteen thousand years have passed since the War of the Gods and their corpses now lie scattered across the world. When men and women awake with strange powers derived from their bodies, some see it as a gift – others, a curse.
When Ayae, a young cartographer’s apprentice in the city of Mireea, is trapped in a burning building she is terrified as a dormant ability comes to life within her. The flames destroy everything around her but she remains unscathed – fire cannot touch her.
Then Zaifyr, a man adorned in ancient charms, arrives in Mireea. His appearance draws the attention of two of the ‘children of the gods’, Fo and Bau, powerful, centuries old beings who consider themselves immortal. All three will offer different visions for Ayae’s powers but whichever choice she makes will result in new enemies – and grave danger…
Ben Peek’s The Godless is one of this summer’s big titles. And from the moment I learned about this title when Tor UK asked for feedback on the cover design I knew I wanted to read this book and find out more about its protagonist Ayae. Meanwhile I’ve been reading numerous interviews and guest posts with and by the author and his views on diversity only made me more excited to read the book.
Peek certainly delivered on his promise of diversity with all of his protagonists being people of colour. In fact, so many character descriptions included references to skin colour, that I found myself actually noticing and finding it jarring, until I realised that most of the times I felt this way it was when a character was described as white. A fact I found painful as it rather revealed what I guess is an unconscious bias or at least a privileged position and I expect better from myself. So if only for that The Godless would have been an interesting and valuable reading experience.
However, The Godless is far more than just its approach to diversity, it’s also an exploration of what it means to have faith, of the definition of divinity, and the dangers of extreme zealotry. The base of this is the War of the Gods, which has killed or fatally wounded the gods of Peek’s world. Leaking from their imminent corpses is what is essentially their divine essence, an essence that can infect mortals and grant them strange powers and in some cases immortality. These changed mortals are considered either blessed or cursed. In some countries they are put on a pedestal, in others such as the city of Mireea they are shunned and sometimes even persecuted in a way that is faintly reminiscent of the witch hunts of yore. There is a lot of philosophising about what makes one divine, but it’s never done in an overly preaching manner, it’s far more subtle and part of what drives the different characters’ past and present.
The three main viewpoint characters are Ayae, Zaifyr, and Bueralan. Ayae is the most traditional story-wise, being the young orphan with an unexpected ability trying to figure out their new identity, only this time it’s a young woman of colour, instead of your typical white farm boy. In fact, while Ayae is young, she’s no innocent having survived the decimation of her homeland and having been brought to Mireea as a refugee. She’s seen some horrible things as a young child and has had to care for herself ever since leaving the orphanage. Consequently there is a maturity to Ayae belying her youth, one that her reactions reflect in the story. No teenage angst here, she acknowledges her fear and despite it, she acts; it may not be the right decision, but she is the one to take it. I also loved that thus far there is also no romantic arc for her; at the start of the book she’s in a committed relationship that is slowly petering out, its death hastened along by the emergence of her ability.
If Ayae is our newbie learning the ropes then Zaifyr is the old pro providing the background and history. I really liked him and the way Peek tells his story, working both in the present time and in the past, giving us his ‘origin story’ and through his experiences developing the world of the Children series and its theological underpinnings. While we learn much about his past, Zaifyr remains somewhat of a mystery, whose intentions seem benign, yet stay nebulous. It is only towards the end of the book that we really seem to get a grip on why Zaifyr is involved and where the series arc will lead us.
Our third main viewpoint comes from Bueralan, an exiled noble turned mercenary captain. He’s a highly respected saboteur, leading one of the most exclusive companies in the land. In many ways Bueralan was my favourite, perhaps because his was the least complex storyline of the three and yet offered lots of action and intrigue. We also get the most comprehensive history for Bueralan, learning how he became exiled and how his previous contract led him to take the job in Mireea. Bueralan is a fascinating character, one who has regrets, but is unapologetic for his past, something which I enjoyed.
There are a number of other great characters such as the Captain of Mireea, Captain Heast, the healer Reila, the female mercenary captain Queila Meina, the ominous ‘children of the gods’ Fo and Bau – who are seriously unpleasant characters and rather scary. But my favourite secondary characters were Lady Wagan, the Lady of the Spine and ruler of Mireea, and Ayae’s master Samuel Orlan. Lady Wagan is a fabulous female character, one who is powerful and competent, yet caring and graceful and she’s emblematic of how Peek portrays his female characters. They all have agency and are in control of their destiny or at least as much as any of us are. Not all culture allow their women equal freedom, yet the women we encounter in The Godless are one and all no lesser than any of the men in the book and often even more. But by far the most intriguing and mysterious character of the book has to be Samuel Orlan, the eighty-second of that name, most famed cartographer of the world and Ayae’s master. I really liked this strange, old man, who has his fingers in far more pies than expected and whose intentions, like Zaifyr’s remain nebulous.
For all intents and purposes, The Godless is very much a first book in a series. As fitting with a big fat fantasy – my ARC came to 562 pages and the font and margins weren’t unusually large – much of this first book is spent setting the stage, gathering the troops, and pointing them in the right direction. It is only once we get to the latter part of the book that we learn of the larger threat to the stability of this world, the root of the Leeran military campaign. While the immediate threat to Mireea is clear from the start, about halfway through the book I did start to wonder where Peek was going with the story. Yet the book is never slow and is written in a pleasant, smooth-reading style, one that easily keeps you turning pages.
The Godless is an interesting opening volley to the Children series and I’ll certainly be back for the next instalment of the trilogy. Peek is a talented writer who juggles viewpoints, complex religious ideas, and conflict expertly, creating a vivid and detailed world for his characters to tromp around in, combining some complex issues with an excellent story. If you are looking for a new big fat epic fantasy series to get stuck into then The Godless is a good bet. I can’t wait to discover more of this world and about the mysterious Zaifyr and Master Orlan and to find out what happens next to Ayae and Bueralan.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.