The first thing you should know about Nicky Drayden’s wildly imagined debut is that it’s really, really fun. You’ll bounce from tormented more-than-besties Muzi and Elkin’s first sexual experience (under the influence of a hallucinogen that unlocks their inner dolphin and crab selves, obvs) to a demigoddess moonlighting as a nail tech who plans to destroy the human race to a robot uprising to a young lady who is More Than She Seems to a global superstar and impossible diva whose friendly neighborhood drug dealer is the only person who knows her Dark Secret to an aspiring government official with a very overbearing mother and a secret life as a charismatic transgender pop star. And that’s just the first few chapters.
Spinning between the perspectives of multiple main characters, the seemingly divergent storylines of The Prey of Gods soon begin to intersect in—spoiler alert—unexpected and often delightful ways.
Set in the just-slightly-future South African city of Port Elizabeth, The Prey of Gods is about—well, okay, it’s hard to explain exactly. An evil and ancient demigoddess is really tired of doing rich ladies’ nails for a living so decides to arrange a catastrophic event that will restore her ancient powers! A new drug allows users to access their inner animal selves (and dormant psychic powers)! A lot of different people don’t know it yet but the fate of the world rests on their shoulders! Muzi is totally head over heels for Elkin and terrified to tell him and thanks to the aforementioned hallucinogen has realized he has the power to control people’s minds! Also there are a whole bunch of murders, a genetically engineered dik-dik plague, about fourteen different simultaneous conspiracies, Xhosa folklore, tragic sacrifices, an epic street battle, and lots of dirty jokes.
But the novel is much more than just a series of madcap events; in between demigoddess/manicurist Sydney’s periodic snacks on any person unfortunate enough to cross her and Muzi and Elkin’s witty banter, Drayden tucks in ongoing themes of family—birth and chosen—memory, heritage, and loss. Muzi struggles with his grandfather, Papa Fuzz, whose commitment to his Xhosa heritage strikes Muzi as old-fashioned, and who Muzi is certain won’t exactly be overjoyed at the news his favorite grandson is gay. Politician-slash-transgender lounge singer Stoker is trying—and failing—to reconcile the secret life she’s desperate to live with the ambitions of her family. The robots are learning that an insurrectionist uprising is a lot harder than it looks. Magic is complicated in Drayden’s world, and although the magic-has-a-terrible-price trope can often wear thin in other novels, here she uses it to explore her characters’ often-painful pasts and complex bonds with one another in ways that feel entirely new. Even Sydney, as hilariously (and sometimes frighteningly) terrible as she is, serves as a framework on which Drayden builds many-layered lessons about what exactly it means to be human. For all its wild subplots and deeper messages, the novel never collapses into (unintentional) camp or heavy-handedness, but underneath the propulsive action is a fleshed-out cast of living, breathing characters whose journeys are as vivid as their costumes.
The skill with which Drayden pulls off her fully realized world, bananas plot, and multivocal narrative is so impressive it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. And on top of her nearly supernatural ability to juggle something like thirty-seven balls at once, she’s also an inventive and delightful stylist with an eye for the novel metaphor and snappy turn of phrase. She can build a fleshed-out character in a handful of paragraphs, make you (well, sometimes) root for a demonic ancient evil who eats people in order to fit into her party dress (it’s complicated), and move you even as you can’t stop laughing. Though she’s pulling from sources as diverse as folkloric origin stories and Terry Pratchett, she balances the disparate elements of her story beautifully. And while there are moments in the story that, shall we say, defy plausibility, by the time she wraps up her own magic show you won’t care. The Prey of Gods is a remarkable debut; I can’t wait to see what Drayden does next.