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Mortal Gods
by Kendare Blake
Tor, $10.99, 368pp
Published: September 2015

I enjoyed 'Antigoddess', the first in Kendare Blake's 'Goddess War' trilogy, enough to want to follow up with the remaining two books. That's even though it was a young adult novel whose leads are surely the young and beautiful people who would look down at us from billboards if only they weren't all dying.

'Antigoddess' wraps up with the first major battle between the two factions of gods. On one side, there's Athena, along with Hermes, Apollo and a few humans reincarnated from the ancient era of the Trojan War, like Cassandra and Odysseus. On the other, there's Hera, the Queen of the Gods, along with Aphrodite, Poseidon and his nereid followers. I won't spoil who dies, but I will say that a few of those gods bite the big one, proving once and for all that they're no longer immortal, if indeed they ever were.

Obviously, 'Mortal Gods' is riddled through with the ramifications of what that means. It's hard enough for mortals to come to terms with the fact that we're going to die, even though we find that out quickly enough because there are always people dying around us: family members, friends, famous people on TV. How hard must it be for a god, who has believed for thousands of years that he's exempt from the inevitability of death, to suddenly realise that maybe he's going to die after all. What's more, as he's already ailing in some obvious way, death is probably coming soon and there's no time to deal with it. Time means different things to gods and mortals, at least until now. That's huge.

Blake actually does alright with this angle, though it could have been played up more. There's a strong feeling of frustration running through the whole trilogy as the gods struggle to come to terms with alien concepts. They change because of it and mortality also brings humanity in many instances. Another great angle to this is the fact that the various humans with past lives of note are mere humans until they die, at which point they continue on as something more than human. In other words, while the gods are becoming mortal, some mortals are becoming gods. That's like rubbing salt into the wound.

There's also plenty of time for this sort of thought because this middle volume mostly doesn't involve the war we might have expected after reading 'Antigoddess.' Sure, we end up in a big battle and more gods die and we start to figure out the why of things and there's a huge cliffhanger to lead us into the last book, but that's the end. Before that, we continue on in the same careful way as we did in the first book, merely with the characters, especially the human characters, much more aware of their situation.

So on we go. Cassandra still lives with her parents in Kincaid, NY and goes to school there. Her brother, Henry, is getting closer to her best friend, Andie, to whom he was married during the Trojan War, though they refuse to let their past lives dictate who they are in this one. Athena now has a house nearby where she lives with the rest of the characters on their side of the war. They all try to figure out what's going on and what they can do about it.

New characters are introduced carefully and slowly, whether at home or abroad. For instance, Calypso shows up at an opportune time to save Henry and Andie from a sneak attack by the wolves of Ares, the God of War, but Ares himself really joins the story while Hermes and Odysseus search for Artemis in the jungles of Malaysia. I liked this gradual approach in the first volume and I liked it just as much here.

What I didn't like was how invisible these gods appear to be in Kincaid, a small town in upstate New York. I get how Apollo hid himself in plain sight, by changing his name to Aidan and going back to high school, but he's the only one who ever seemed to try. The rest still keep their old names, which are hardly the most common in modern America and don't embark in any attempt at social camouflage.

I often wondered why Cassandra's parents never saw anything suspicious in their kids suddenly hanging out with a bunch of sick kids called Athena, Hermes, Odysseus, Calypso and Achilles, none of whom either work or go to school. The only logical explanation would be that that they run some sort of drugs lab and they partake of their product enough to a) get sick and b) believe they're stuck in an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess.

Another problem I had with the basic setup was how these gods are so comfortable with modern culture. As a forty-something Englishman living in the United States, I find much that's odd to me because it's different to what I know. There are people who can effortlessly change their style, language and thinking to match whatever's in fashion at the time, but I'm not one of them and, frankly, don't want to be. I still write in English rather than American and, while I watch new films and read new books, my primary cultural reference points are from a couple of generations ago. These Greek gods reference pop culture all the time as if they're eating it up like they're really twenty-years-old rather than however many thousand. I don't buy that.

But that's critical thinking and this is YA fiction. This didn't bother me to the degree that I wanted to stop reading. I wanted to know where Blake was taking her characters and the situation that they've found themselves in and I wanted this just as much after 'Mortal Gods' as I did after 'Antigoddess.' ~~ Hal C F Astell

Click here for a review of book 1 Antigoddess and here for a review of book 3 Ungodly

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