The Prey of Gods
by Nicky Drayden
2017, 377p., HarperCollins
Nicky Drayden is a young woman from Texas who chose to set her young adult novel in South Africa. The afterword explains why: she went there when she was in university and fell in love. This initially looks like science fiction as it's set in 2064: nearly everyone has a personal 'bot, but Xhosa tradition lives on in the form of our main protagonist's grandfather. But there's a new drug on the street - unusually, the drug isn't evil. It causes bizarre hallucinations and activates what amount to latent superpowers. Another protagonist (a very young girl) looks normal but has a set of wings that sprout from her back ... and they turn out not to be imaginary. This quickly strays into fantasy as we discover that the drug "godsend" is actually activating normal human's demi-god-powers. The main enemy is an older goddess who has been hiding as a human, having been brought low by lack of worshippers, but who is using fear (and murder) to power herself back up again.
That's a lot going on - but apparently it's not enough for Drayden. We have emergent artificial intelligence, the original god who made mankind, a visit to the afterlife, heavy-duty genetic engineering, and of course a massive final fight. And then an unexpectedly (and to my mind unbelievably) sunny conclusion.
The book starts out relatively tame, looking like near future SF. As Drayden piles on the other elements it becomes increasingly ludicrous and over-the-top - although in a reasonably interesting way. But as it goes, action and consequence also become increasingly decoupled, leading to logical failures I partially address in the "Spoilers" section below. I think Drayden could potentially be a pretty good writer - but she needs to build with only a couple fantastic elements (instead of "far too many" as here) and hold onto logic as she does it.
SPOILER ALERT: stop reading now etc. as I'm about to ruin multiple things about the book. This is meant more as a reminder to myself of my issues with the book than anything else. Mr. Tau initially appears to be a minor character, but he raped Nomvula's mother and then deliberately provoked the mother throughout her life to keep her insane. Then, to make it worse, he took her daughter away from her. And in what we assume is his final (and deliberate) act, he allows himself to be killed, provoking Nomvula into her first god-like act - killing thousands. Something she regrets for most of the book. But Mr. Tau resurfaces - initially unnamed, to wipe the memory of our cross-dressing hero(ine) - Tau is unnamed here, but it doesn't seem the character can be anyone else. He reappears later (named this time) after we find out that he's apparently the originator of all life - and he's treated as "a good guy," more or less, despite multiple evil acts. In the end, Nomvula somehow gets her mother back (now healthy, although she was insane and died with the other thousands), and everyone is - entirely without explanation - depowered. If everyone had superpowers, the world wouldn't work well ... but Drayden just says "everyone lost their powers" and doesn't explain the cause at all.