I'm a well read grad student who's bluntly honest about all things, although I try to be most honest about myself.
First of all: thank you to the publisher for the ARC. This hasn't changed how I feel about this book.
I don't even know where to start reviewing this. The bizarre sex? The mythological pantheon that seems to have a basis in real mythology, but is cobbled together into something new and fascinating? The theme of tradition versus modernity? The LGBT themes running throughout this? I mean, this thing is jam-packed. What's truly impressive is that you add a plot and fleshed out characters on top of all this, and it doesn't feel too busy. No, it's just busy enough, just as busy as the characters and world call for it to be and no more.
Drayden doesn't limit herself to a page count, either. At a sprawling 400 pages - although keep in mind this covers the afterward, she gives herself plenty of space to add in all these elements. This is also her debut novel, although she has collections of short stories out. I've seen first time authors pack close this much into shorter novels, but it's tricky to pull off. I've seen a lot of first time authors go at a more leisurely pace, too. Could Drayden have pulled this off without spending as much time she does on this novel? Perhaps, but I think she'd have to lose the multiple point of view chapters.
And disclaimer, I hate this technique most times. It doesn't give you enough time to get to really settle with the characters most times, and I found myself questioning if I remembered Sydney correctly in her second chapter. (I'd had to put the book down and came back and scratched my head. It was only once, however, but shows at least one potential flaw of this device.) This book tells you who the chapter will be sticking with, and does do third person but sticks with that character for the chapter. The writing, characters and world building were strong enough for me to stop caring at all and just enjoy this book, too, which is why I didn't knock stars off at all.
This is a look at a possible future for South Africa. Drayden acknowledges it can't be the story of South Africa in her afterward, but rather is the story of her relationship with South Africa. (I'm not sure how to pare that, as I didn't get that personal feel from this book: it seems to me that Drayden had a story to tell, did a lot of research into South Africa, and decided to set it there. While some of the aspects - the dik-dik, the mythology, and the traditions versus modernity - are specific to the country, or even continent, a good deal feels like it could have taken place anywhere. Then again, this author is compared to Lauren Beukes and Nnedi Okorafor on the back of the book, which sets up unrealistic expectations. Those two authors steep their books - or the ones I've read - in African culture, and in Beukes case South African Culture. Beukes is a white woman who is South African, though, so she's lived in that culture.)
So to me it was a look at the possibilities of the world in the future. Or at least some of it is; the mythological aspects are there, and seem more unlikely than the cloning, the robots, or the hybridization of species that are rooted in scientific advances that we're making today. And no, the mythological is never truly explained; it simply lives beside the science. And I was okay with that. It was far better than an explanation that didn't make sense, or was too complex to be coherent, which I've also seen done. Drayden also writes with a sharp confidence, not needing to explain and simply writing as if we'll accept these two elements side by side. She assumes we do, and I found it worked for me: I didn't question why there were gods among labs that were built upon genetic modifications.
It's a bit of a slow start as Drayden sets up her characters, but not a page is wasted: she does immediately start setting up plot points, particularly with Sydney, and Muzi. I feel like Nomvula's setup was a little slower than the rest, but it all makes sense at the end: Nomvula's insecurities, her abilities, all had to be revealed slowly for the best effect. Even the ways that some stories seem to take an odd, or even unnecessary turn, end up feeling necessary at the end. They're there to show why the characters could act in no other way than how they do.
And, yes, I loved the robots. Loved them so much!