Inventively Weird: Temper by Nicky Drayden

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Temper is Nicky Drayden’s second novel. Her first novel, The Prey of Gods, was a weird and inventive thriller that combined fantasy and science fictional elements. Temper is a standalone work in a new setting, one that involves fantasy, religion, and a touch of steampunk SF. This review will contain spoilers, because there’s absolutely no way to talk about even half of this book without them—much less the more interesting half.

In a nation reminiscent of South Africa, almost everyone is born as a twin. Seven vices are divided between each pair of twins, so that one twin always has more, and one, less. The vices are complemented by their alternate virtues.

Auben Mutze has six vices. His brother, Kasim, only has one. Though both brothers live in an underprivileged part of town, Kasim’s single vice is a ticket to a better life, at least eventually. Auben, on the other hand—for all that he’s smart and charismatic—doesn’t have nearly the same likelihood of making a better future. When Auben starts hearing voices—voices that encourage him to give in to his dangerous side, to do things that are actively harmful—it threatens his bond with his twin. But Kasim has also been hearing voices, voices that drive him to dangerous excesses of virtue.

The boys gradually realise that they have each been possessed by the original godly twins: Grace and his demonic opposite, Icy Blue. Seeking an exorcism leads them to discover that the man they always thought of as their uncle, a wealthy and successful man who has never offered them any tangible support, is their father. Looking for ways to understand and combat their possession, they blackmail him into getting them accepted to a very fancy, very expensive religious school where they can research the problem—but at Gabadamosi Prep, they’re outsiders until Kasim catches the attention of a famous Man of Virtue, and begins to be hailed as an incarnation of Grace himself. Meanwhile, Auben is craving blood and feeling compelled to do murder. The twins’ relationship is strained to the breaking point when Kasim tricks Auben into a ritual that strips Auben of his last “virtue,” replacing it with Kasim’s vice, and the brothers become Grace and Icy Blue—and Kasim-turned-Grace strips the vices from the virtuous twins and gives them to the “lesser” twins, banishing them from their homes—and turning the gender-mixed twins, the kigen and androgynous, into male- and female-bodied.

Reconciliation seems impossible, not just between the twins, but also between Auben and his fanatically secular mother. Despite being mostly godlike, and building a city for his followers—a thriving, compassionate city, one that has achieved a lot of success—Auben still has human emotions appropriate to a college-age young man. He wants to reconcile with his mother: he wants evidence that she ever loved him. And he wants, too, to reunite with his brother.

In the end, he’ll get his brother, at least. Kasim makes a terrible incarnation of Grace. Maybe they were wrong about which brother was supposed to end up with the vices?

Temper, like Prey of Gods, is a weird novel. (Weird seems to be Drayden’s bailiwick.) It’s more fun and less philosophical than Miévillean New Weird, but it shares some of the same approaches to SFF, especially in the co-existence of magic and science, the liminal and the everyday. And Temper is willing to make space for its world to be queer and brown, to affirm the presence of trans folks, and to examine divides of class and the connections—and ruptures—of family.

Because this is a novel about family, in the end. About difficult relationships, and rejecting—or claiming—them anyway, and about somehow trying to make it work.

Temper is slow to start. The early chapters are hard going: Auben can be an unappealing little shit of a teenager, just like many other teenagers, and Temper frontloads Peak Adolescent Boyness. That’s not really my scene. It does warm up—and the pace speeds up—once we hit the possession plotline (and the secret father plotline), and gains momentum from there. Temper is told from Auben’s point of view, and his voice is a strong one, though occasionally irritating. On the other hard, some of the ways in which Temper is inventively weird are ways that jar one’s narrative expectations: for example, one expects a confrontation to be the story’s climax, rather than the growth and reconciliation that form the true climax and denouement. This is not a bad thing, but makes Temper a novel that requires more from its readers than a more conventional SFF novel.

On the whole, I enjoyed it. I think Drayden is developing into a really interesting writer, and I look forward to seeing more of her work in the years to come.

Temper is available from Harper Voyager.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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