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No Gods for Drowning by Hailey Piper3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsHailey Piper’s sophomore novel is about as far as she can get from her first. Queen of Teeth was a satirical sci-fi body horror extravaganza that singlehandedly invented a new subgenre (which I have named “vagina kaiju” because if I don’t, no one else will). Just about the only thing it has in common with No Gods for Drowning is a fascination with the spectacle of destroying cities.

Beyond that, this second novel is an often relentless mashup of grimdark fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, and detective noir, set in a bleak secondary world whose human inhabitants, for reasons no one knows, have been abandoned by the gods who protected them from predatory telepathic sea creatures called glories. Probably the only other book I could think to compare it to might be Ian Esslemont’s Night of Knives, also set in a storm-wracked coastal town (and probably the only Malazan novel you could call accessible to any reader outside that series’ die-hards). No Gods for Drowning is Malazan-ish in a couple of ways. It has characters so morally gray they should be assigned their own Pantone color code, as well as a complicated lore all about humans and gods having what you could fairly call toxic relationships. No, even I would not have expected Piper to go this direction quite this hard.

The continent of Aeg and its city-states were once under the protection of a host of gods. But ten years before our story opens, they all left without a word, and ever since, rising seas and attacks by the glories have been ongoing. One of the few remaining city-states is Valentine, where we’re introduced to Captain Arcadia Myrn, leading a team helping to evacuate citizens to higher ground in advance of the next expected round of tidal flooding. If you stretch your imagination not very far, all of this can be taken as a metaphor for climate change.

Arcadia’s former fellow officer is Alex Stathos, who now works as a private detective for Ace Investigations with his partner Cecil Gillion. Alex and Cecil are investigating a series of ritualistic homicides that have all the earmarks of sacrificial killings. Neither Arcadia nor Alex suspect that the murderer — and we know this from page one, so don’t worry about any possible spoilers — is none other than Arcadia’s lover Lilac Antonis. Lilac is not merely a priestess but the earthly daughter of the goddess Logoi, and these human sacrifices are Lilac’s attempt to summon her divine mother to return and save the city and its people. (Such sacrifices are legal in this society if the victims consent, but we know Lilac’s victims were lured.) Lilac has deeply bitter and personal motives as well, as her own twin little girls were lured to their watery deaths by the glories. Arcadia is also pledged to Logoi, in a ritual years before that physically changed her sex. She is haunted by the memory of a mass slaughter in a nearby village named Shah, carried out not long after the gods departed, as a sacrifice to Logoi, in which Arcadia could not bring herself to participate, despite orders. Alex did participate, but he has grown to hold an undying resentment towards the gods for what they demand of their human subjects, let alone their abandonment.

What follows is a plot packed so full of secrets and lies, double-crosses and betrayals, guilt and redemption, that to attempt to summarize it would have the bizarre effect of spoiling too much while explaining too little. It’s much more practical to talk about the story’s effect, which is often overwhelming. Though it’s all incredibly layered and dense, Piper manages to create a physically tactile world without heaps of exposition or loredumping, except, perhaps, in those scenes which owe the most to the tropes of detective noir, where villains deliver impassioned speeches explaining their motives.

And when I say physically tactile, I’m not exaggerating. The midsection of the novel consists of an extended storm sequence that is unlike nearly anything I’ve read in modern fantasy. What follows is, if possible, even more intense, as gods and demigods and human characters find themselves in an inextricable conflict with apocalyptic stakes. If there’s anything to critique here, it may be that some readers will find No Gods for Drowning a bit too much of everything; too busy and complex, too visceral, too frenetic, too full of anguish. What Roger Ebert used to call “too much of a muchness.” But it’s also a story that draws upon a deep well of pain — the need we all have to feel loved and protected and watched over — to extract hope and promise and the chance of a brighter future. It’s a book that pulls its readers in deep over their heads, not for drowning, but immersion.