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Antigoddess
by Kendare Blake
Tor, $9.99, 352pp
Publication Date: August 19, 2014
I wasn't aware until I started reading 'Antigoddess' that it's a young adult novel, but that just made it even more interesting to me, as I got to learn about what constitutes YA as much as what unfolds within its story.

I should open by highlighting that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, regardless what demographic Tor may believe it might market best to. I'm hardly the target audience for a Tor Teen book, but Blake's prose is smooth and enticing, even if she seems to avoid bigger words in the process. Not everyone can have the vocabulary of a Clark Ashton Smith or a Will Self, but Blake wins out with her story even if nothing within it is likely to win at Scrabble.

It's a story that takes a set of characters who have been around for millennia, the ancient Greek gods, and places them into the bodies of the young and beautiful in today's America. I didn't so much visualize these characters individually as see them posing for the front cover of the 'TV Guide', people who are as much models as they are actors. The only reason that this ends up being an unfair assumption is the situation in which they've found themselves.

You see, these immortal gods are discovering that they may not be quite as immortal as they've always thought. Athena may still seem young and strong, but owl feathers are poking through her skin in the most highly painful places. Hermes may still be able to run very fast indeed but he's wasting away to nothing. Demeter is little but a flat piece of skin with a face, sprawled across a desert. Hera is turning to stone, Aphrodite is a mass of bruises and Poseidon is as polluted a mess as the oceans he oversees. They're all dying, slowly but surely, and none of them have figured out why.

What they do seem to have figured out is what to do about it. We're never let in on the reasons why, but these gods are gradually polarizing into two sides and their feeling is that for each to get back on their regular immortality track, they just need to kill off the other side. Unfortunately for Athena and Hermes, the two gods we follow most closely, that sets them up against Hera, the queen of the gods, and her brother Poseidon, king of the sea, hardly minor opponents. Whatever state everyone's in, the odds are hardly on them and they need to find a more effective weapon than themselves.

And this is where Cassandra comes in, the reincarnation of the ancient seer from Troy, whom Apollo had cursed to accurately tell the future but never be believed. For the most part, the narrative switches between Athena and Cassandra, who would be the MacGuffin of the piece if only we didn't care about her too. Blake doesn't paint anyone in anything but shades of grey, but that depth allows us to feel for all her characters, even if we don't actually like them.

I liked quite a lot here.

I liked the gradual introduction of the ensemble cast. We get to meet quite a few Greek gods, though there are many left unmentioned who will surely show up in future books in this 'Goddess War' series. Athena and Hermes are only the first but we get to know them before we're introduced to others and so on. While it sometimes feels like we're about to find our characters reenacting the siege of Troy in a sort of class reunion format, Blake keeps things interesting by bringing in her new gods slowly and even killing off characters we don't expect. She also manages to keep her mortals as interesting as the gods who used to play with them, even if I'd like to see a lot more modern anger and bitchiness when some of those mortals start to remember how the gods treated them millennia earlier.

I liked how Blake finds a way to adapt some of the standard angles of young adult fiction, which, after all, were designed for characters the same age as their readers, to a completely different set who are thousands of years old. Athena has, by far, the most depth, with two such angles to work through. By now, completely used to being immortal, she's suddenly thrown for a loop by her apparent mortality and naturally starts to see her life in a whole new light; almost as if she's being forced to grow up and live in the same world as everyone else. As a virgin goddess above such concerns as love and sex, she also gets to struggle with Odysseus, a puppy dog at her feet.

I liked the way that Blake phrased the horror aspects of her story, which are deliciously freaky. The notable deterioration of these supposed immortals is only one reason why my vision of a network TV show full of models wouldn't come to pass. Another is that such a show would surely have to tone down the stark inhumanity and darkness that Blake brings to her story. This would adapt much easier into a graphic novel than a TV show.

On the negative side, I didn't buy into quite how modern the gods manage to be. While Blake has them do agreeably godlike things to highlight how inhuman they really are, they're all grounded as modern teenagers. Athena sounds like she shops at Hot Topic, while Apollo is back in high school watching out for his girlfriend. Their reference points are either ancient Troy or the last decade of popular culture, never anything in between.

I also wondered about the sweep of this first volume. It tells a complete story, while leaving plenty of opportunity for the next few books, but it seems like it did too much too soon. I wonder how the second book, 'Mortal Gods', due in October, will play out. Will it build the series or will it languish in the shadow of the first book. Perhaps some of the conveniences during the finalé will allow Blake to rework and build rather than merely follow. I'll certainly be interested to find out. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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