I prefer my urban fantasy when it does something different, often by situating its story somewhere unusual. I was fortunate enough to be on a signing session at TusCon last year with Suyi Davies Okungbowa and couldn't resist his pitch. I promptly picked up a copy of this, which I believe is his debut novel, because it didn't sound remotely like anything I've read before and that's exactly what I found when actually reading it.
They do say that authors should write what they know and Okungbowa knows Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, because he was born there and, when he's not in Tucson, AZ working on his MFA, he lives there. It naturally become the setting for this novel, in which he visits a fascinating calamity upon it. Put simply, the gods have fallen and they've taken over Lagos Island, or Èkó Ìsàl?`, and it probably won't taken long before they start to expand.
While I believe Okungbowa trawls in gods from more than one pantheon, the vast majority here are Yoruba deities, or orishas, a mostly new mythology to me and a deep one. We gradually discover that the fiery gods, Aganju and Sango, have mounted a failed revolt in Orun, the traditional home of the orishas, and the result is that Obatala kicked a whole bunch of them out and effectively locked the gate behind them. Now Lagosians aren't just worried about when their power might go out today, but also what the gods are getting up to in their city.
Enter our protagonist, David Mogo, who's an orisha 'daji or demigod. He doesn't remember his parents, because he was brought up by a wizard, Papa Udi, but he does see his mother in visions. She's certainly an orishi, even if he doesn't know which one. That, like most things here, comes clear over time and we just need to be patient. For now, it's about David and what he's hired to do.
Lukmon Ajala, who's a local Baál?` or clan head, as well as what the back cover blurb enticingly and accurately calls a "wizard gangster", wants him to locate and deliver Ibeji, twin orisha of vitality, to him. David takes the job for no better reason than he can't afford to replace his roof and he's half done in a shake of a lamb's tail, successfully delivering Taiwo, one of the twins. While the back cover blurb goes no further, however, it doesn't take long for that plot to change, and talking with Kehinde, the other twin, he realises why he has to change it.
I won't go any further than that, because this is less like a novel and more a set of three linked novellas, this being the setup for the first. Knowing what the second one is spoils the first and so on. Instead, I'll suggest that it all reads a lot closer to Max Gladstone's deity-infused cities, like Dresidiel Rex in 'Two Serpents Rise', with its Aztec mythology and gods, than anything I've read by Nigerian authors like Nnedi Okorafor. Lagos merely happens to also be real.
It also feels far more immersive than Okorafor's 'Binti' books for a number of reasons. While they saw Nigeria as a starting point, Okungbowa never takes us out of Lagos, though we do explore a lot of it, visiting its major landmarks, like the Third Mainland Bridge, as well as rougher areas that locals wouldn't tell tourists about. We also feel the city because, for much of the book, it's shorn of its residents. Its streets are empty here, even if danger is secreted in their shadows.
The story also has its roots far deeper into Yoruba culture than 'Binti' ever did in Igbo culture, partly again because we never leave Lagos but also partly because we care about a lot more local characters; there are no aliens here to distract us. I liked how Okungbowa explained the culture within its own bounds but often didn't translate into something recognisable. He hints that "Danfos" and "kekes" are transportation but not what sort, and we can understand if not visualise "aso-ebi uniforms", "gele headpieces", "flowing agbadas". Immersion is good for us and for stories too.
And, most obviously, Okungbowa flavours his story with language. He wrote it in English but it's Nigerian English, which is very similar to but not quite the Queen's English. As an Englishman living in the US, I found it interesting to note that there are different differences, but they're no more jarring to the non-native reader. Papa Udi, however, speaks in pidgin English, which is much harder to follow, though not impossible. I enjoyed figuring that out as I went.
What I couldn't figure out while reading and am happily looking up afterwards, is the use of accents, though this didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book. The Yoruba language is tonal and it utilises accents both above and below letters, and sometimes both, as in Èkó Ìsàl?`. That may look weird on this screen, as an attempt to add such accents to Unicode was rejected. It comes up often too, as every vowel carries an accent, marking low, mid or high tone, and so does some uses of s, ? denoting a "sh" sound. I loved this immersion in language, even if I still struggle to pronounce any of these Yoruba words.
I loved the first novella of the three too, which is 'Godhunter' and covers the search for Ibeji and the fallout from what that hunt sparks. It's exactly what this book needed to kick things off, introducing us to characters, both human and divine, the city itself and a whole slew of concepts and cultural details that we need to know for later. The second, 'Firebringer' is pretty good too, an internal story for David Mogo to go with the external one he deals with in the first novella, which is a natural progression. Just as this is a story of Lagos, it's a story of David Mogo, who has just as much change to experience.
I had a little more trouble with the third, 'Warmonger', not because it's bad but because the story, by this point, started to seem somehwat inevitable. That may partly be because Okungbowa, for all that he clearly doesn't want to paint his story as good guys versus bad guys, only gives us an opportunity to see one of the two sides. Whenever we see the other, it's during a battle and, having got to that point with David Mogo, Papa Udi and their growing entourage, we're always going to see them as the heroes and the other guys as the villains.
Another reason is that those other characters do a lot more early in the book than they do late on when everything turns into the literary equivalent of a blockbuster's CGI boss battle. Remember 'Wonder Woman' being fantastic for an hour and a half, but boring when it turned into a video game at the end? This isn't that bad but there are similarities.
I liked a lot of supporting characters here, like Fati, a child bride rescued from Lukmon Ajala; Femi and the heroes of LASPAC, the Lagos State Paranormal Commission; and Shonuga and her horse at the Arena; but the endgame here was always going to be god vs. god and Okungbawa clearly can't see a viable place for any of these characters there, so they get inevitably sidelined, even if they show up for something above their mythological paygrade.
While it started better than it ended, I enjoyed this a great deal. As I hoped it would be, it's something completely different to anything I've read before. I look forward to seeing what Okungbawa comes up with next. ~~ Hal C F Astell