Friday, December 29, 2023

Review: The Gods Awoke by Marie Vibbert

A fantasy world where, much to the surprise of the characters, the gods they have long worshipped become manifest. Oh, and the gods too, are rather surprised...

Illoehenderen has a problem. Illoe is a bonded servant to a high priest but Illoe’s contract is nearly up and Illoe’s future is uncertain. There are many, including a powerful and rich scion, who think that Illoe is just kept around for their looks, and it is unseemly for the high priest to keep someone like that as an assistant. Is the high priest sleeping with Illoe or just keeping them around as eye candy? And when the gods that both Illoe and the high priest pay lip service to as part of their jobs actually start manifesting for real, Illoe has even more problems.

But, you see, I’ve been somewhat deceptive and perhaps played on your expectations. For, you see, Illoe is a man, the high priest is a woman, the gods are all women, and this society is a matriarchy.

This is the story of Marie Vibbert’s The Gods Awoke.

Since I playfully went with confusing expectations in the first paragraph, the first aspect I want to discuss in the book is the social and gender dynamics of the novel. Although the book came out in 2022, the book’s world feels like a fantasy genderflipped version of the politics of sex and gender we saw through the 1990s in America. Some men have some roles in political and social life, but the implication that the men who do have positions of any power have gotten there by sleeping their way to the top. Or that an attractive man in any position under a woman is clearly there for ogling and perhaps more.

But it is not exact. In some ways this society is more restrictive. Illoe’s contract, for example, his indentured servitude , complete with stipulations regarding finding him a wife, come off as even more regressive than Clinton-era social dynamics. But the idea that men could be more than ornaments or house providers, a sense of them trying to break boundaries and stereotypes, is definitely of the water of the time.

And the language is deliberate. Hitra, the aforementioned priest that Illoe works for, is called a high priest, not a high priestess. The gods themselves, although they are all female in aspect, call themselves gods and not goddesses. By deliberately using language in this way, it feels like the author is calling out the social and political use of language in her fantasy world in an exacting way. Although Hitra never says the phrase when accused of sleeping with Illoe, I kept thinking of a version of the famous Bill Clinton line “I did not have sex with that man”. In point of fact, Hitra is a fascinating character, a very put upon high priest with a lot on her plate. Illoe not so cheerfully runs and organizes her life in a way that definitely is meant to invoke the stereotype of the powerful executive who can't function without his gorgeous secretary.

The novel does feel like it is definitely trying to resonate with that era and its social politics in another respect, and that is in how it handles queerness. To be blunt and frank, there is nearly no queerness at all in the book, and the revelation that a secondary character with little screentime IS queer is treated as a shocking reveal that causes much consternation and debate. But again, this feels much like it is capturing the politics and mores of the time and transplanting them into this fantasy world.

The rest of the worldbuilding shows interest and some clever filips, some of which become very plot relevant. The technology level feels pre-industrial in most respects, there are no hints of railroads or steam power, here. In this fantasy world, however, the technological innovation has focused on the major piece of consistent magic harnessed by this society and that is telepathic communication. Not everyone can communicate telepathically, and in general, given this matriarchal society, women are seen, even when there is evidence to the contrary, to be better at such arts than men. But telepathy has its limits on distance and effectiveness, and so people are set up as living routers to extend the range and effectiveness of telepathic calls. It seems to be a low ranked job meant for men rather than women, but it does allow for people to communicate across the city in a more effective manner than by sending messages. It may be my own background, but I was reminded of my late mother’s job as a switchboard operator at a hospital. Not a glamorous job and not one that most people would think highly of, or think highly of the people doing such work. But of course, a city wide network of routers for telepathy, where communication is taken for granted, can be turned on its head and turned to plot when that reliability for a character is put into question.

But let’s talk about the gods, since The Gods Awoke is, in fact, the name of this book and while the social and sexual politics of the book are interesting, the sociological dynamics of a world where the gods, paid lip service to by some and devoutly worshipped by others (and still others are outright atheists) suddenly appear is an interesting core thread. For all that this story is about Illoe and his major social problem of his contract being up, the main thrust of the story, is Senne. Senne is one of the titular Gods that awoke. And in fact, Senne is our point of view character, which drops us in a somewhat unusual position of having a non omniscient god point of view to Illoe, Hitra and the other characters of the book. Even as we do that, Senne (and the other gods) , having spontaneously manifested, are themselves rather alarmed, confused and unsure of what they are and what they can do. Senne’s attempts to get a hold of herself fills the book, and sometimes, Senne’s powers and control cause problems for the hapless mortals she is trying to connect with.

And of course there is the big question, one that the gods do ponder but don’t really have a good answer for: Why? Why did the gods awaken, and how, and what does it mean? The book doesn’t spend much on this, Senne is much more interested in what she can do, and trying to do things, but there is definitely a strand of “Well, how did I get here?”. But “what they are” is a more pressing concern and problem.

I want to pick up the “what they are” and extend that to “who they are” as well. Senne, Wenne (Queen of the Gods) and the others are a rich and interesting pantheon, and the book makes clear there is much lore, history, mythology and theology regards the gods, their stories, backgrounds, depictions,art and more. So what happens when these gods actually, well, awoke? The gods themselves aren’t quite sure what to make of the situation. They “know” the stories that have been told about them, but having been conjured up, somehow, they don’t *feel* them quite as much as memories. And that’s true of all of their personalities, and it leads to some interesting perceptional shifts. Wenne is supposed to be the Queen of the Gods and so tries to take charge. Our POV, Senne, is supposed to be a villain, even as she is the second most powerful god, but she doesn’t feel like a villain. Self interested and directed, yes, absolutely. On the first page of the book, Senne falls for Illoe and his plight, and that drives a lot of the book. But a villain? Is that who Senne herself thinks she is? And what happens when her actions turn out to be unintentionally harmful?

In the bottom line however, The Gods Awoke, for all of its crunchy theology, for all of its gender flipping politics and exploration, is a fun story about a young man trying desperately to carve a place in the world, and getting unexpected hindrance and help from a god, gods, that are suddenly real.


The Math

  • Interesting theological and teleological setup.
  • Genderflipped Clintonian Political setup

Reference: Vibbert, Marie, The Gods Awoke [Journey Press, 2022]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.