My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This review originally appeared at www.newtownreviewofbooks.com.au
The best epic fantasy is a seamless blend of intricately wrought elements that creates a fully-realised world with a comprehensive and weighty history that continues to affect the lives of the equally real characters that inhabit it. On the (now not so) small screen, shows like A Game of Thrones have replaced the soap opera phenomenon of the 1980s, with audiences glued to the reversals and treacheries of the Lannisters, Starks and Baratheons just as avidly as those ‘of a certain age’ used to follow the exploits of the Ewings, Barnses and Carringtons. A Game of Thrones is ‘real life’ on steroids with added dragons, and it also manages to encompass big ideas in amongst the action: the clash of armies and the vengeance of individuals play out against an ethical landscape just as detailed as the realistically crenulated coastline of Westeros.
The Godless marks the beginning of a new epic fantasy from Australian author Ben Peek, and it’s a remarkable achievement. Because as much as George RR Martin produces the gold standard of this type of story, Peek gives him a run for his money.
The world of The Godless is a strange one indeed. The gods were all killed in a war thousands of years before the novel begins. In that unbelievable battle the sun god was torn into three pieces so the landscape is lit by a morning sun, a midday sun and an afternoon sun, and the mountains of Mireea are built on the Spine of Ger, literally crystallised on the bones of a dead god who fell across the land. Of course, many peoples of our own world have such creation myths to explain how the world they observe is the way it is. But in The Godless these are not myths: the bodies of the gods are real. If you tunnel into the mountains of Mireea you will find deep channels that open onto the carcass of Ger. As you can imagine, the war and subsequent death of the gods had a profound effect on those who worshipped them, many of whom were also killed in that titanic struggle. But the power of the gods was not finished. It inhabited certain individuals, giving them fantastically extended lifetimes and strange and different powers. Some of these people thought they could become gods themselves,and instead became tyrants, bringing misery to an already disillusioned populace, but that too is ancient history and those would-be gods eventually stood back and allowed civil society to flourish into a series of nation states, one such being the merchant city of Mireea, perched on the Spine of Ger, and facing the prospect of a protracted siege when the book opens:
After the gods had died there had been temples, buildings erected to house the remains, relics and beliefs that were no longer in practice. Bueralan had never before seen one – they were, mostly, ruins now – and he felt a chill, as if a gaze had settled upon him. It enveloped him so fully that he did not know if he could step outside it.
‘Do you feel him?’ The Quor’lo’s voice was barely audible.
‘Yes,’ Zaifyr replied.
Bueralan said nothing.
‘We cannot find the remains of his wards,’ it whispered, not concerned with his response. ‘They are the air, the dirt, the fire, the ocean: Ger shattered their chains to him with what strength he had left. We are told that their remains are the anger in our weather, the floods, the droughts, the cyclones, the fires. They are lost to us.’
‘They are not lost. They are here. They live without him, just fine.’
The cry was sudden, angry, a denial that snapped Bueralan’s attention away from the submerged building and forced him to take a step back, reaching for the cold dagger strapped to his leg. What started as a surge of the Quor’lo to its feet ended with a shudder. It fell to its knees. ‘You and your kind,’ it whispered. ‘I will not listen to you and your kind.’
And there, its voice stumbling in an inaudible whisper of defiance, it fell still.
But as much as The Godless is about the events that shaped this world, it’s also about the characters that inhabit it. One such is Ayae. Training to be a cartographer, her world is changed forever when an incident reveals she is one of the god-touched, with the power to create and control fire. She has to quickly come to terms with being reviled as cursed by the people she counted as friends, and at the same time being prized by the Lady Wagan, ruler of Mireea, as a useful weapon in the upcoming battle for the city. She’s rescued early on by Zaifyr, another god-touched whose own history stretches back thousands of years. Zaifyr has a dark past, made only darker by the fact that only he can see and communicate with the spirits of the dead, who have been left with nowhere to go now the gods have departed.
Another of the Lady Wagan’s weapons is the exiled baron Bueralan Le, now Captain of Dark, a mercenary force that specialises in sabotage rather than open warfare. He has a dark history of his own and, with his small group of soldiers, he is tasked with travelling into the wasteland that used to be the kingdom of Leera – a land stripped by its own people in preparation to make war against Mireea – in order to poison all the wells between them and their objective and learn what they can about the enemy. As much as all these characters have a vital role to play in the unfolding narrative, they are also dragged at by their pasts, and the early stages of the novel unfold in digressive fashion as we learn more about how they came to be who they are. In other hands this could have slowed the pace of the novel, but their collected histories are so rich and build so much into the themes of the book, that they add to the import of the action rather than detract from it:
‘You think you can give up what is inside you?’ Fo’s scarred hands dropped to the metal end of the bed. ‘What remains of the gods finds us. In wombs, in childhood, in the summers and winters of our lives. Once it has found us, only death can drive it out. If that two-bit copper healer told you she could do that, she has done nothing but lie to you.’ His long fingers curled, one at a time, over the bed frame. ‘But you have nothing to fear, child. Not from this. Trust me. Trust us. My brothers and sisters and I study the remains of the gods. They lay around us as they lived: on our land, in our oceans, and in our skies, the power that made us originally still there, wishing to create.’
‘Wishing to create?’ Ayae met Fo’s disease-scarred eyes. ‘What is it that you’re implying? That I have been infected by a god?’
‘Possession is not infection.’ His smile was faint. ‘I can tell you that on a number of levels, child.’
‘We are being re-created, reborn. The power in the gods does not wish to die with its host. It is searching for escape, for a new home, and it has found you, just as it found me. With it, you and I are in evolution to take back what was once ours.’
The Godless also plays with a number of ideas through the narrative, central of which is the role of divinity in the life of the individual and society as a whole. Firstly, if the landscape you inhabit is covered with the remains of your gods, the idea of a god is more than simply an ‘article of faith’. The gods are unarguably real for the people of this world. But they are also dead. Imagine the effect on our own religions of such a revelation … Then there are the god-touched. Some try to become gods but fail and that opens up questions about the nature of godhood: What is divinity and can a being who comes from human stock ever truly shed the earthly? Clearly the failure of those early ‘pretenders’ indicates godhood is something other than great power and longevity. But there is a separate group of god-touched, called the Keepers, who have banded together and cloistered themselves away to search for another way to ascend. Not much is known of them but it’s clear their presence will be felt in subsequent volumes. As for poor normal humans, many have abandoned the idea of gods in disillusionment, but in some this creates a dangerous vacuum that can be exploited by those who believe they have a conduit to a new god – or say they do. Religious zealotry is a powerful force — as we see in our own world – and there are always those willing to believe, because without belief, there can be no salvation.
Peek handles all these epic fantasy elements with great sensitivity. Everything feels as if it’s working together and I found myself eager to return to the world of The Godless every time I picked up my e-reader. He even manages to pull in the beginnings of an expansive geography for the world. Just as in Westeros, there are lands beyond the city of Mireea: oceans of blood created by the death of another god, kingdoms where the animals speak, cities where the dead hold sway … It seems we’ve witnessed events in only a small corner of this world, and there are many more wonders to explore.
Finally, and as with all good epic fantasy, The Godless ends with a revelation that will have repercussions for all the characters and the world they inhabit. The experience of reading this book was so immersive, and so ultimately fulfilling, I can’t wait for the next instalment.
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