Book review: No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

(image courtesy Blackstone Publishing)

ARC courtesy Blackstone Publishing (via NetGalley) – release date 21 September 2021.

Humanity by and large is not a fan of things that go bump in the night.

Or for that matter the creatures we imagine dwell in the shadows or which don’t conform to our idea of what is normal and right; for an expansive, inquisitive species, we have a fatal tendency to stay within solidly-etched lines that scream solid and known parameters.

But in Cadwell Turnbull’s luminously imaginative novel No Gods, No Monsters, people have no choice but to face up to the fact that the stuff of their nightmares – their ill-informed nightmares it must be noted because the “monsters” of the book are not all monstrous or worthy of fear and loathing – as they begin to come out of the shadows and the places between realities and make their presence known.

Turnbull never actually comes out and says exactly why the werewolves, shapeshifters and dragons think they are safer out in the light and the known spaces that in the hiding places that have served them well for millennia, but it is intimated that something is lurking in the darkness that is heinous and awful that the monsters, such as they are, feel safer in the harsh light of bigotry and hatred than in their traditionally favoured boltholes.

There should be unsettling and it is for many people who resort to lashing out and striking back rather than seeking to broaden their understanding of the complicated complexity of life which does always take the forms we expect. (Example A are the bizarre creatures that lurk in the depths of our oceans; they don’t appear like anything we know and yet they are just as valid an expression of life as any other.)

“Monsters fell into one of three categories. They belonged to the societies, which meant they were institutionally bound to secrecy. Or they were monsters with a deep family history of monstrosity, which meant they’d been taught over generations to hide well. Or they were rogues, whose only guarantee of safety from the societies and the wider world was their practiced cunning and low profile.” (P. 219)

In a storyline that is wildly, brilliantly imaginative and yet grounded in nuanced layers and an intimate understanding of the confounding contrariness of the human condition, Turnbull seeks to expose the dark underbelly of society and, no, it does not necessarily belong to the world of monsters, though some genuinely evil terrors do indeed reside there.

No, the underbelly in question sits firmly and squarely in the realm of bog standard Homo Sapiens, many of whom see the emergence of these once-fantastical creatures as some sort of declaration of war on the so-called certainties of the world around them.

The truth is, as Turnbull beautifully and affectingly evokes through the stories of a number of interconnected people, is that what we accept as normal and known sits firmly within the often limiting confines of our perceptions.

Even when we see the truth and hidden wonders of the world, there are many among us who prefer to tell themselves them imagined it all or that they thought it all up in a moment of madness.

This happens again and again in No Gods, No Monsters and takes place even when footage has gone viral and, you would think, there can be no arguing back from the truth of what the eye has seen and the heart now knows to be true.

Cadwell Turnbull (image courtesy Goodreads)

The brilliance of No Gods, No Monsters, which is written so achingly and intimately beautifully that you are immersed in its gently powerful narrative within words of its opening, is that it tells its explosive story, not in overwrought narrative punctuation points, awash in hysteria and melodrama, but in the quiet stories of its characters.

Laina is the first of the many compelling people we meet in the book, a young woman involved in an open relationship with husband Ridley and girlfriend Rebecca who has to grapple with the violent shooting death of her junkie brother by police.

In and of itself that would be catastrophically traumatic but as she watches the video of her brother’s last moments, she is struck by a strangeness so palpable and powerful that it upends everything she ever thought she knew about life.

She reacts relatively positively to the shredding of the certainties of life she once held to, but others are not so fortunate and No Gods, No Monsters goes between those who deal well with the shadows coming alive and sending their inhabitants out into the light, and those who do not and are caught in secret societies dedicated to ending the “threat” of the monsters within and without.

It is a revelatory exploration of the way people react to unexpected and unsettling change because Turnbull isn’t content to lay everything out in stark black and white; here in No Gods, No Monsters are authentically complex tales of the good and the bad in humanity and an intelligent questioning who the real monsters are in this story.

“She quickly finds another monster—a native American wolf-shifter variant, its magic old and very contagious, smelling of moss and tears and worn, bloodied feet—and tags him too. And then a European wolf shifter, a genetic variant that passes down only through the mother. It smells of old books with yellowed pages slowly turning to dust. Sondra tags her as well and quickly detects a Euro-American wolf hybrid—young, intensely contagious, and extremely volatile. She’s tagged several more monsters in a matter of minutes. Three witches. An American bear-shifter variant, a coyote variant, a cougar variant that is as fleeting as the animal itself. Her nose is filled with the scents of monsters, dozens of different magics.” (P. 304)

Its narrative hangs together in a wholly unique way with No Gods, No Monsters switching times and tenses, diving in and out of our world into fantastical realms between worlds – the multiverse makes an appearance and it’s cleverly handled – all while telling a tale through the eyes of wholly disparate group of people.

The only downside to what is just about every way a breath of fresh air in the urban fantasy genre is that we are only able to spend limited amounts of time with a sprawling cast of characters; however, this is ameliorated to a reasonably satisfying degree by the interconnectedness between this vast assemblage of characters.

In the end, while the characters matter and Turnbull realises them in way that make them memorable, what really comes to the fore in No Gods, No Monsters is how much we lie to ourselves about what matters to us, what we want from life and what we would be willing to accept if all our understanding of how life is were slowly but surely blown to smithereens.

This is a novel that has a huge amount of explosively impacting things to say but which does it in a slow-building way that allows you time to understand the people involved, the sheer scale of what they are confronting, and the enormity of what is happening to society.

Richly emotionally resonant, fantastically clever and sublimely, affectingly well written, No Gods, No Monsters is a compellingly poetical but brutal tale of how humanity in all its diversity (and it embraces queerness and a host of other divergences from the main with a passion) talks a big game of curiosity and thoughtful endeavour but how often falls over the feet of its own prejudices and flawed perceptions with much work remaining before we can truly say we have lived up to our potential to embrace life in all its wondrous multiplicity of expression and exuberance of possibility.

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