fall into fire, rise like a phoenix: David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Posted 12th July 2019 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Representation: PoC, wlw relationship among secondary characters, disabled character
Published on: 9th July 2019

Nigerian God-Punk - a powerful and atmospheric urban fantasy set in Lagos.

Since the Orisha War that rained thousands of deities down on the streets of Lagos, David Mogo, demigod, scours Eko’s dank underbelly for a living wage as a freelance Godhunter. Despite pulling his biggest feat yet by capturing a high god for a renowned Eko wizard, David knows his job’s bad luck. He’s proved right when the wizard conjures a legion of Taboos—feral godling-child hybrids—to seize Lagos for himself. To fix his mistake and keep Lagos standing, David teams up with his foster wizard, the high god’s twin sister and a speech-impaired Muslim teenage girl to defeat the wizard.

I received a free arc of this book from the publisher via Net-Galley, in exchange for an honest review.

I don’t know where to even start when it comes to talking about this one. It blew my mind to the point that even now, several days after I finished, I’m still reeling.

When I dissect what I read, it’s a little difficult to figure out why it had so much impact; superficially, this is a story I’ve read many times, a coming-of-age tale wherein a young man must claim his full, supernatural potential in order to save the people and place he loves. I mean, that’s an ancient story; we’ve been telling variations of it for eons, right?

But as with all stories, it’s how you tell it that matters. It’s the script and the costumes and the set dressing, the stage make-up and the actors you cast for the roles, that combine to make a story unique regardless of how many times it’s core has been told before. And I really feel like Okungbowa has done something special here.

I remember the first time I read a Russian fantasy novel (in translation!) and realised that it’s more than setting that changes how a story feels; just as I can’t (generally) stand books published in the 90s or earlier because the writing style of the time just doesn’t work for me, different parts of the world seem to have their own styles, too – it’s not limited to time periods. Australian fantasy is just different to (North) American fantasy, as is Russian, as is German, as is Chinese. I don’t have the linguistic or literary knowledge to put into words exactly how they’re all different – and it’s not like they’re a monolith or anything. But it’s clear to me that different cultures flavour their stories differently – which makes perfect sense when you think about it, doesn’t it?

David Mogo, Godhunter is like that; it doesn’t feel like an American or (Western, I have no experience with Eastern) European fantasy novel. Maybe it wouldn’t feel quite so mind-blowing to someone more familiar with Nigerian literature (or, honestly, Nigeria in general), but for me, raised on a very Western diet stretching from Lord of the Rings onwards, it felt brand-new and fresh and raw and dizzying, all at once. I can’t say for sure, having never been there, but what I want to say is that it’s more than the fact that DM,G is set in Nigeria; I think it might intrinsically be a Nigerian story, coming from a literary tradition I’m not familiar with, influenced by a culture I don’t know.

I just don’t think a white British author could have pulled this off, is what I’m saying here.

And to be honest, I suspect that that might be at the root of many of the negative reviews I’ve seen for this book; DM,G is so different stylistically from what most of us (white, Western) readers are familiar with that I can see why some people might reject it, without ever quite being able to put their finger on what it is that actually bothers them about what they’re reading. I will freely admit I struggled to adapt for the first few chapters, and I absolutely had trouble learning everyone’s names and keeping them all straight – but that was solely due to my own unfamiliarity with Nigerian names; I have the same problem with Finnish names, and I’ve been living in Finland for years now. If you’ve never read a Nigerian novel before – if you’ve never strayed far from your comfort zone of straight, white, mostly-cis-male writers – then yeah, you’re going to have to put some extra work in in order to get the most out of this book. But it’s damn worth it.

And besides, Okungbowa is very considerate of his white readers; I’ve seen reviews complaining about info-dumping, but a) I found all the info I needed woven very deftly into the narrative, and b) I needed that info! When I pick up a book by a white American man, I’m engaging with a literary tradition I’m familiar with; just like fanfiction writers don’t need to introduce the characters – because the readers are fans who already know those characters – no one needs to break down a generic Medieval-esque-European setting for me. No matter how original the story, I recognise and understand something about its basic nature. I didn’t have that to fall back on with DM,G – which made everything new and interesting in a way I don’t get to experience often, but yes, also meant Okungbowa needed to introduce me to…well, a lot. And you know what? He did it incredibly well. I never felt overwhelmed, bored by information I didn’t care about, or confused about what was going on. One example stands out very clearly in my memory; during a battle scene, David is faced with a kind of monster he knows but that this particular white reader did not – a creature from Nigerian mythology. And I was awed at how quickly and perfectly Okungbowa conveyed the information I needed during a fight scene, without bogging down the action at all. Worldbuilding via fight scene? That’s just ridiculously impressive.

Another critique I’ve seen is that the dialogue shifts between what I wince to call ‘proper’ English and what is probably Naijá, or Nigerian Pidgin (although it’s never named in the book), and look – even I know that people switch back and forth between British English and Naijá depending on the situation and setting, and probably mood and personal preference too. That David speaks British English with some characters some of the time, and Naijá at other times – particularly with his adopted father, who speaks Naijá exclusively – is completely normal. It would be weird if he didn’t. Was it sometimes hard to understand what was being said? Sure, but no more so than when LotR delves into Elvish. When a fantasy book has instances of a fantasy language, 99 times out 100 context makes the meaning clear, and the same is true with this book (which, let me reiterate, is not using a fantasy language, it’s a real language real people speak and which the characters are obviously going to be familiar with). And as someone who tears her hair out every time Hollywood shows us Germans speaking English with each other when there are no native English speakers present, I appreciated getting to see these characters speak like, you know, real people. It anchored the fantastical elements really well.

Look, I will defend this book against all comers, okay? Okungbowa not only came up with an amazing premise, he wrote a story that lived up to it – how often does that happen? The magic! The fight scenes! And oh my gods (literally), the mythos! The more that was revealed about the Falling – when the gods showed up on Earth – and what had caused it and also, you know, the nature of gods and the various pantheons and everything – the more I learned about that, the more I wanted to gush about this book to literally everyone. I am so in love with so many things I can’t talk about here because spoilers, which is so frustrating! I don’t know how to convince you to go read this when I can’t tell you why.

But basically, if you’re not afraid of moving away from traditional (blegh) fantasy, if you’re into cinematic magic and mythology and seriously weird found-families, if you want grit along with your action, if you want something new and wonderful, then this is definitely a book for you.

Seriously, give it a go. I can’t imagine regretting it.

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