Cadwell Turnbull’s sophomore book, and opening novel in the Convergence Saga defies expectation and easy definition. Turnbull’s first book, The Lesson, was one of my favorite books of 2019, so this next one was saddled with high expectations. In a lot of ways, those expectations were met, but I also experienced a lot of confusion that approached baffling disappointment. Only became even more troubling to my mind when I read the acknowledgements in the back of the book, only to find my main feelings addressed by the author himself. So how can I approach this review in a way that highlights the strengths of the book, without making it sound like the confusion feels bad, especially when it seems so deliberate? No Gods, No Monsters is an ambitious and ambiguous start to a saga that shows promise, but requires the reader to work for it too.
Laina awakens to find out that her wayward brother was shot and killed by Boston Police. Since she was estranged from him, the suddenness of his death, while shocking, didn’t feel immediately mysterious. However, a voice over the telephone promises she can get her a copy of the bodycam footage of her brother’s demise, opening Pandora’s box. Meanwhile, Laina is also visited by one of her brother’s friends, Rebecca, who tells her that he was getting his act together, and that she’s planning something to help the world remember him. Laina finally receives a flash drive, and upon opening it up, she sees what looks to be a werewolf shot by the officer, until he looks again to see just a man, her brother Lincoln. Days later, Rebecca and a group of others hold a small highway protest wherein they transform on national television into their wolf forms, only to be forgotten as some collective moment of hysteria. So what is Laina, and the rest of the world to do, when monsters seem to be real?
If you’re looking for a light hearted urban fantasy romp, I think Turnbull’s style is going to turn you off. No Gods, No Monsters doesn’t have a lot of linearity when it comes to the perspective shifts. There are many characters, and most of them only get one or two chapters with which to view their lives. They are sometimes directly connected, but some are also ships passing in the night. Turnbull tends to pull them in at different times in the narrative, making them slightly disjointed so each switch is an adjustment. It’s enhanced by Turnbull’s excellent writing ability, which provides a solid ground for the reader to stand on during the many shifts. I often felt myself asking who is this character? Have I met them before? What do they believe? Some readers will see this as a lot of work on their part, and it is. I would argue that most of it pays off, but it’s not a breezy reading experience and the reader will have to keep track of a lot of information.
“How does it pay off?” one might ask. Well, that comes from Turnbull’s ability to provide an incredible amount of nuance to something that most people would assume was cut and dry. Most of the characters are in over their heads in one way or another, as the truer nature of the world is revealed to them. Turnbull makes it interesting by having the reader as the sole keeper of all the knowledge, while individual characters are privy to some of the goings on. All Turnbull does is give the reader the pieces of the puzzle while shredding the box and burning the shreds. This forces the reader to watch the characters deal with the revelations in a myriad of ways, causing dominoes to fall asymmetrically, sparking reactions from other characters, who in turn cause their own cascades. It is written with a deep level of empathy, while creating just the right amount of distance to be analytical about it.
Where one might have trouble is that the narrative doesn’t really wrap up. It ends in a weird spot, that feels like it could be an ending, but it doesn’t quite cause that satisfaction that the first novel in a series usually closes on. It’s always an opening to a wider world, and a bigger conflict, but usually it closes with a sense of accomplishment, that this is just one small victory in a line of defeats and victories that will make up a series. Instead, there is an ambiguous threat that closes out No Gods, No Monsters and it’s unsettling. And given the rest of the story, this feels right.
This, I think, has to do with the themes and the subject matter Turnbull drudges up in No Gods, No Monsters. The book’s second opening starts with the murder of a black man by the cops, in which the cop describes killing a monster, only to see a man dying in the street. This is a story that has been told again and again in our own world that it’s hard to ignore it in any fashion. The revelation that the man in question actually was a werewolf, and monsters are in some sense real, further complicates this incredibly horrifying trend in how police tend to view those they kill. Mix in some clandestine secret societies, leftist bookstore worker co-ops, protest marches and mass hallucinations through media manipulation and you have a stew most people would have a hard time swallowing. However, Turnbull navigates the blurred lines deftly, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions before bringing the bigger picture into a less fuzzy focus, providing a clearer understanding of the problems at hand. He not only takes the idea that some people see monsters with hatred at face value, he asks, how do we then navigate this world when those monsters have no power or recognition, and help them to build that power?
Turnbull doesn’t have the answers, and I think that’s why after finishing this book, I felt a little more drained than I expected. It’s the first in a series, and the first book never has the answers. His only answer seems to be that there is not one answer, but that answering is the one thing we can actually do whether it’s wrong or not. Is this book for you? I sincerely hope it is, because it’s just too damn weird and uncomfortable to not be experienced. It’s not that it deals with important relevant events, so much as Turnbull explores the feelings of powerlessness that comes from witnessing such events in such an empathetic way. No Gods, No Monsters is a challenging book that is well worth the effort that pushes urban fantasy into deeper and more uncomfortable territory.
Rating: No Gods, No Monsters 8.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to us by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.