No matter your faith, or lack thereof, I think it’s safe to say that none of us have had lunch with a deity in recent memory. However, the concept of a god brought to life has been explored in fantasy and science fiction from the beginning as a way to understand our world and ourselves.
I grew up fairly religious, going to Sunday school every week and regularly attending church services well into young adulthood. And while my faith has waxed and waned over the years, I’ve always been fascinated by the human need for religious or spiritual belief and the common threads that tie together people from around the globe. Why are aspects of mythology and scripture repeated across cultures and centuries? The virgin birth, the savior’s death and rebirth, and more feature prominently in a variety of traditions and belief systems. If a god or gods created us in their image, then it’s only natural that authors—tiny gods of our own universes—create gods in our image.
When I began writing fantasy, these questions found a prominent place in my work. In the Earthsinger Chronicles, the evolving relationship between the people and those they put their faith in is a strong theme. With religious division, wars, and hatred separating us in the real world, can we make sense of things and find unity and empathy for others on the page?
Here are five books where the gods walk the earth.
The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden
This standalone urban fantasy/sci-fi novel is wildly original and fresh, with a large cast of characters and a story you haven’t seen before. When Sydney, an ancient demigoddess who’s fallen on hard times, discovers that a new drug on the streets unlocks the true inner selves of humans, she figures out a way to use this to get her powers back. It’s up to a ten-year-old girl (also a demigoddess), a teenage boy, a sentient robot, a pop star, and a politician to save their land from this growing evil. The god figure who creates humanity is by turns nefarious predator and gentle old man. Throw in some mind control and a robot uprising, and you have the recipe for a story that is hard to forget.
The idea that both belief and fear are powerful fuel for the gods is explored in the different ways the two goddesses gain power. Early on, as young Nomvula is taught about her powers, she learns that gods, “achieve immortality through their followers, through belief. Likewise, they can draw intense power through fear, though the effects are short-lived.”
Throughout the story, each character experiences an extensive transformation—often internal and external—and by the final battle it’s evident that the difference between gods and men is flimsier than we’d like to think.
Death’s Dancer by Jasmine Silvera
In this novel, the world has been divided into regions under the control of a handful of mighty necromancers. Sleeping gods are appealed to by human godsdancers, whose careful choreography is designed to achieve divine intercession for wealthy clients.
Isela, a highly respected godsdancer, isn’t certain that she believes in the gods she’s spent her life training to communicate with. She lives for the dance, and hides a swiftly deteriorating hip condition from the world. But when she gets caught in the crossfire of her newest patron’s enemies, she’s forced to confront her beliefs about herself, her family, and the nature of the powerful forces that rule her world. Family, love, and the sacrifices made to protect both are strong themes here as Isela confronts her faith and her future.
Set in a futuristic Prague, with one part mystery, and one part romance, this urban fantasy introduces us to a variety of supernatural creatures, a unique world, and the presence of gods with incredible power and an unknown agenda.
Namesake by Kate Stradling
This is one of my favorite books ever from one of my favorite authors. Anjeni and her sister Aitana were both named after goddesses from legend, only Tana is the perfect sister and Jen is, well, not. She doesn’t have magic and clashes with her parents who obviously favor their other daughter.
When Jen is pushed through a magical portal, she finds herself thousands of years in the past, in the presence of legendary heroes from history and witness to the founding of her own country. Her magic finally wakes up and she inadvertently fends off an attack of monster warriors. The people mistake her for the goddess she was named for, and Jen decides it’s safest to play the part, unable to get back home and worried that unless she ensures the past proceeds as it should, she won’t have a home to get back to in the future.
But being praised and worshipped don’t come naturally, and Anjeni must deal with incipient jealousy of her sister’s namesake, the unexpectedly crafty founding fathers of her nation, and a powerful evil she’s not sure she can take on. It’s a lovely, captivating story of real character growth and change, well-paced action, with a really cool magic system!
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
This was the first of Octavia Butler’s work that I ever read, and it remains my favorite. A recent re-read just reinforced how much I love this book! When Anyanwu, an African shapeshifter who’s lived for hundreds of years, meets Doro, a being thousands of years old who must change bodies to survive, it is not a match made in heaven.
Each has found a very different way to survive their long life—Anyanwu by living quietly among her people and changing shape to stay hidden, and Doro by propping himself up as a god and pursuing the mother of all eugenics programs. He breeds anyone he finds with special abilities, ultimately seeking to craft someone else like him, a companion in his long, lonely existence. The fact that he’s found a possibility in Anyanwu is marred mainly by their philosophical clashes. Doro doesn’t give brutality or murder a second thought, viewing humans beneath him, plus his survival depends on taking lives periodically. Anyanwu holds human life sacred and her desire to protect her children, and their descendants is what first cause her to leave her home and follow Doro to the new world.
What follows is the story of a centuries-long, complex relationship between two not quite humans who master manipulation, giving hope, and causing harm to one another in an endless dance.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Casiopea’s life of drudgery toiling for her selfish family is interrupted when she accidentally frees the Mayan god of death from years of captivity. Their lives and futures now inexorably linked, the two must take a journey to defeat the power-hungry god who imprisoned his own brother.
There’s an interesting tension between the heroine’s Christian faith and the traditional Mayan deity she’s forced to work with. “She’d probably burn for all eternity. However, she amended her thought when she recalled that she was in the presence of a god who had spoken about yet another god, which would imply that the priest had been wrong about the Almighty One in heaven. There was no one god in heaven, bearded and watching her, but multiple ones. This might mean hell did not exist at all.”
Hun-Kame, the god trying to get back his throne, must learn humanity, while Casiopeia comes into her own through her first taste of freedom and self-discovery. Moreno-Garcia’s writing is impeccable as she brings folklore to life amidst the cultural and political background of 1920s Mexico.
Originally published October 2019
L. Penelope has been writing since she could hold a pen and loves getting lost in the worlds in her head. She is an award-winning author of new adult, fantasy, and paranormal romance. She lives in Maryland with her husband and their furry dependents. Her books include the Earthsinger Chronicles: Song of Blood & Stone, Whispers of Shadow & Flame, Cry of Metal & Bone, and the recently-released Requiem of Silence.