The Godless. Book Review

godlessTHE GODLESS by Ben Peek
Tor, p/b, 438pp, £8.99
Reviewed by Catherine Mann

The gods fought and died ten thousand years ago and now their bodies litter the land, sea and skies. There are still a few people living who remember the gods and their catastrophic war, but most of humanity lives in a godless world. The metropolitan, trading city of Mireea is diminished as it prepares for war. Ayae discovers she is one of the Cursed when she is rescued from a fire unscathed. Spurned by her neighbours and her lover she comes to the attention of powerful people who hope to use her new status for their own purposes. All she wants is the life she’s built as a cartographer’s apprentice, but even without her new powers the coming conflict is changing the entire city. Zaifyr, who saved Ayae, has a long and strange history and Ayae eventually befriends him, though his allegiance is unknown. Muriel Wagan, the woman who rules the city, is willing to deal with the foreign Keepers despite their troublesome powers and disregard for others. Captain Heast of Mireea will do anything to save the city, or at least its population. Bueralan and his band of saboteurs are hired by Heast to discover the nature of the approaching army, but he will discover that the enemy and their motives are far stranger than anyone unexpected.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading and I was pleasantly surprised by the time I finished. The setting of the book is an interesting one, a world where the gods’ bodies are part of the land, sea and sky, both forming and polluting the landscape. There is a sense of a wider world and a broader history beyond the confines of the story, with mercenaries, saboteurs and immortals referring to other places and times that have impacted them. The opening describes the mountains that cover the back of the god Ger, the location of Mireea. The main characters are from, and in most cases have visited, different parts of the world. It is interesting that certain characters, usually secondary or tertiary ones, are described as white. This is the only ethnicity that is specified, neatly suggesting that white is not the baseline here, without specifying what is or even if races in this world correspond to those in our own. Men and women appear in various roles and jobs and for most of the book there doesn’t seem to be much of gender division in labour. There are female guards and soldiers, and the women of Mireea are trained to defend their home alongside the men. The characters are deeply rooted in the world, their present states affected by their backgrounds. They have been involved in wars, as combatants and civilians, and their lives are shaped by the rising and falling of kingdoms and ideologies, as both subjects and leaders. The worldbuilding is largely focused on and done through the characters, and although the opening feels overly-descriptive, the bulk of the details are linked to people and their experiences.

There are three main characters and a host of secondary ones, most well written with their own agendas and motives, though some are clearer than others. Ayae has built a life for herself in Mireea, and deals with being ostracised after her powers are revealed. She could leave, or follow the whims of those who now wish to use her, but Ayae won’t abandon her adopted home or be anyone’s unwilling pawn. Zaifyr’s motivations are hard to figure out, he himself isn’t sure what he wants. He’s still haunted by his past experiences, despite his former powerful position and the guidance of his brother, he’s lost and perhaps what he needs is a friend. Bueralan leads a group of saboteurs, their work is subtler and more complex than mercenary work, doing what needs to be done to avert or turn the tide of conflict. Bueralan’s troupe of saboteurs form part of the action, but though they all have their own characteristics I found the group weren’t particularly distinctive compared to Bueralan, and less memorable than other secondary characters. This is because they are depicted as a group. Mireea’s protector Captain Heast, the city’s ruler Lady Wagan, and the city’s healer Reila are all strong characters whose actions are central to the plot, even if we don’t inhabit their minds as much as the main protagonists. The Keepers, Bo and Fau, seem sinister and self-interested due to their deadly powers, strange experiments and disinterest in the fate of the city. They aren’t likeable but they are intriguing. The mercenary captain Queila Meina is a good character and it was a shame we didn’t see more of her. The cartographer Samuel Orlan is a likeable but very mysterious character, who plays a small role here but I really wanted to know more about him.

The story wasn’t quite as I expected, and this was no bad thing. Given the situation I had assumed this would be a largely martial story, but though combat and war loom there is a lot else going on here and the story has real depth. That one of the protagonists leads saboteurs as opposed to mercenaries shows that this is story willing to do something different than many fantasy tropes. Preparations for conflict concern most of the characters, and fear of what shape the future will take -on personal and wider levels- is ever-present. Ayae’s focus on the mundane life she has built for herself shows the value of everyday life, even as such lives are disrupted. There are flashbacks, giving us more details about character and world history. There are investigations of mysteries under the city, where Ger’s body lies beneath flooded mines and conspiracies lurk in the long-abandoned cities of his worshippers. Bueralan’s encounter with the enemy forces leaves him unable to take action, but witness to strange developments. Questions of faith and religion and death drive the actions and character’s motivations, as what seem to be philosophical questions take on very real dimensions with dire consequences. The Godless is populated by a cast of vibrant characters, sets up a fascinating start to a new series and is well worth a read.