The Godless by Ben Peek – review

The Godless by Ben Peek

The Godless by Ben Peek is the first in the “Children” trilogy. Peek made big news last year with the sale of this trilogy to Tor UK, a major sale for an Australian author.

I’ve enjoyed Peek’s shorter work in the past. Long time readers of the blog might recall my review of Above/Below – a small press publication by Peek and Stephanie Campisi. Given the high profile sale, my interest in Australian speculative fiction generally and my enjoyment of Peek’s previous work, I’ve kept an eye out for the publication of this book.

I won’t give much of a plot synopsis – there are plenty of other reviews of this book, most of which have a more comprehensive description of the plot. Broadly, this secondary world fantasy is based on the premise that the Gods all killed each other in a divine war thousands of years before. As they slowly pass away, their power is leeching out into the world, and some humans find themselves the unwitting recipient of some fragment of one of the former Gods’ powers. These powers have a wide variety of effects, but most of the people who survive the onset of their powers become essentially immortal.

Most of the story is set around the city of Mireea, built on a mountain range that has formed over the body of one of the dead Gods. Mireea is under threat of siege from an army formed on religious grounds.

There are three main viewpoints for the story, Zaifyr – one of the oldest of the “Gods’ Children”, an immortal thousands of years old, Ayae – one of the newest of the Gods’ Children just coming into her power and Bueralan – a mercenary in charge of a small band  of saboteurs hired to operate in defence of the city.

I must admit that this has been one of my most enjoyable, refreshing reads for 2014.

I loved the premise, and in general the concepts behind the writing. It could just be me bringing my own biases into the reading, but I took a lot of parallels between Peek’s post-Gods world and our own slow move out of the shadow of historical religions. The exploration of what it means for society to stand on its own, without reference to supernatural entities. The taking on of power that has been historically seen as the province of the divine. The need to take responsibility to chart our own path forward. The power of even remnants of religion to inspire terrible deeds in the name of holy mandate. I found Peek’s interrogation of these concepts to be quite powerful and thought provoking. If nothing else, the concepts behind this story would have been enough to hook me in.

But this is no worthy but dry tome, meant to educate rather than entertain. I found the work utterly engaging, and it was only in reflecting on it later than some of these themes came through (and as I say, I could be ascribing my own biases to the work). The use of language in this work is delightful, the pacing superb. I found the characters to be vividly drawn and compelling in their motivations. In short it was an excellent read.

I particularly wanted to highlight Peek’s treatment of time. The work seamlessly switches between the past and the present, echoing his description of the nature of the Gods and subtly preparing the reader for some of the reveals later in the work. While the techniques and style are different, I was left with the same feeling I’d had when I first read Catch 22 – the dips into non-linear story telling was enjoyable on many levels. And to do it with such deceptively simple language and style, the ease with which the reader can follow the changes belying the sophistication of the writing needed to achieve that effect. Just brilliant.

I also loved Peek’s treatment of diversity. The novel is by no means a soap box, but built into the fabric of this world was an embrace of diversity that was refreshing. No “default white” characters here – Peek points out the physical characteristics of all characters as they enter the story. Women and men clearly have an equal presence in society. None of this is done in a preachy way, it is presented as mundane fact, woven into the background of the story.

I found the plot to be mature and engaging, with enough turns to maintain my interest. I cared about the characters. I wanted to know what happened next. I read the book over only a few days (unheard of for me these days!) and I’m already hanging out for the next book in the series.

A fantastic accomplishment well worth the initial publicity, with additional dollops of pleasingness based around the fact it has come from an Australian author. Highly recommended.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Above/Below by Stephanie Campisi/Ben Peek – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

Above/Below is made up of two novellas – Above by Stephanie Campisi and Below by Ben Peek. The stories are based in the same world – a world where the inhabitants have split themselves into two main groups. The inhabitants of Loft have built cities that take to the skies and float amongst the clouds, while the inhabitants of Dirt remain on the surface of the planet. It is a fairly blatant have/have not scenario – the citizens of the various city-states of Loft are relatively wealthy and healthy, using lopsided trade agreements to get what little they need from Dirt. By comparison, the citizens of Dirt live in poverty and sickness, with everyone suffering from what seems like radiation and other pollution related sickness.

The catalysing event of both stories is the literal fall of one of the smaller flying city-states (Adur). Above is set in another of the flying city-states Liera, and is told from the point of view of Devian Lell (a “cleaner” who works outside the city cleaning it of pollutants – a very low status job with a high possibility of sickness – and former dissident who has a now waning passion for finding out more about Dirt). He is reluctantly assigned to Dhormi, an ambassador from Dirt come to discuss the ramifications of the fall of the city of Adur.

Very like the Upper Decks in Richard Harland’s Worldshaker young adult novel, the world of Loft was painted in a very unsympathetic manner. The vast bulk of the citizenry exploit Dirt for raw resources without much thought to the consequences. Ms Campisi chooses to tell the story from a very low status individual who already has significant doubts about the society he lives in. As such, while some of the descriptive imagery is beautifully rendered, you don’t really get to see how the bulk of Loftian society lives.

Devian is buffeted by events, as a result I found the Above storyline to be a little passive. The prose was excellent, the imagery vivid, the protagonist well developed and described – I just found myself not really caring as much as I wanted to about the outcome of the plot.

Below is set in Dirt and is told from the perspective of Eli Kurran, a security officer in Dirt assigned to the diplomat who visits Dirt in the aftermath of Adur crashing to the surface.  Kurran has recently lost his wife to cancer and is reluctantly recalled to duty for this mission.

Inhabitants of Dirt are exposed to radiation and other pollutants from the womb, and as a result have a very limited lifespan. To extend it, they have “purifiers” surgically embedded around their twelfth birthday. These have the appearance of metal spikes sticking out of the body, which expel toxins from the bloodstream and dramatically life expectancy (from an average of 22 to 48 – still not great!). This one feature stuck with me and created a strong visual image of the citizens of Dirt. Due to this and the general setting, Below had a much more dystopian feel than Above.

I felt a much stronger connection with Kurran than with Devian. Kurran, while still buffeted by events, seemed to take some measure of control over them. The story seemed a little more strongly plot driven than Above, perhaps with slightly less background and character development. The action scenes were well written, and while both novellas did not resolve all of the overarching plot elements I did get more of a sense of closure from Below.

I read the eBook version of the book. In the original print version, the books are printed using the “tete-beche” format (like some of the old Ace Double books released in the US). Theoretically it doesn’t matter which order you read the novellas in. Of course, having picked one order you can never really go back and try the other way around in the same way, but I think that reading Above then Below is probably the best. The understanding of the world and the relationship between Loft and Dirt you gain in Above makes the Below story more impacting. I’m not sure that it would make as much difference the other way around.

So, in summary both excellent novellas. If you like character development better than I suspect you’ll prefer Above. If plot is more your thing, then I suspect you’ll drift towards Below. But either way, the combination makes for a very satisfying read.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.