Oh Ye of Little Faith – Stories of Belief

One god. Two gods. Red gods. Blue gods. Seems like gods are everywhere in fantasy stories (and some science fiction, yes). They tend to be a catch-all for the sources and styles of magic that characters often rely on, or can act as plot devices in themselves–though hopefully not actual deus ex machinas. Some love to slip into the story through dreams and visions, guiding people to their destinies, while others watch from the sidelines, pointing and laughing when the characters tumble and trip their way through the quest. Others bring the balefire once they get pissed off enough, judging anyone who forgot to slaughter a fatted calf in their name every half hour or so.

Whether possessing of inhuman personalities and intelligence or being all too human and fallible, whether they’re immediately active in events or just an annoying chatter in the characters’ ears, gods and the faiths they inspire provide fascinating backdrops and impetus for stories to unfold. Here are three books where gods play a significant role in some form or another.

PROMISE OF BLOOD by Brian McClellan

THE RUNDOWN: An incredibly violent coup (yes, it does live up to the “promise” in the title) may have sent a corrupt regime to the guillotine, but it has also unleashed an ancient curse laid down by the very god who established the kingdom millennia ago. Of course, most modern folk, including Field Marshal Tamas–the leader of the coup–don’t believe in the gods anymore, but that’s before wide-scale magical destruction starts wreaking havoc across the land. Now Tamas’ violently secured peace may require even more deaths to keep hold of.

THE CONTRAST: Promise of Blood takes place in a more “advanced” civilization than many epic fantasies, where gunpowder mixes with magic and a few other worldbuilding elements might even be considered a bit steampunkish. Most of the people have forgotten the true history of their kingdom, which positions them for some big surprises when ancient foes (and allies) start to resurface. The gods here aren’t too front-and-center, at least in this first installment in the series. Rather, they lurk in the shadows and you aren’t sure whether you might even want them on your side or not. Those who claim to be gods may just be madmen with a bit of magical talent, or power-mad sorceresses bent on murder sprees.

THREE PARTS DEAD  by Max Gladstone

THE RUNDOWN: Kos, the fire god of Alt Coulomb, has died. Time to call in…the lawyers? In this case, yes, in the form of Tara, an enormously intelligent, yet inexperienced legal-magical associate tapped to bring Kos back to life before his city falls into ruin and chaos. Tara must discover why Kos died and how to resurrect him while also dodging murderous gargoyles and inhuman embodiments of justice. And her main ally is a hapless priest of Kos whose faith has been shaken to the core by his god’s death.

THE CONTRAST: In Three Parts Dead, gods are creatures of supernatural pacts, their powers and identities fashioned by the various contracts they establish with any number of factions and supplicants. If a god is smart, they can form arrangements that return more power to them than they dole out. If they’re unlucky, they may get tapped for more power than they can actually provide, which results in their unfortunate demise. Tara’s quest for the truth is a unique blend of legal mystery, magical murders, and theological deconstruction as she explores an increasingly strange and exotic city.

HUNTED by Kevin Hearne

THE RUNDOWN: Druid Atticus O’Sullivan has lived for over two thousand years…but his extended existence may come to a quick end now that he’s been targeted by two goddesses of the hunt–Artemis and Diana–for perceived (and actual) wrongs. With apprentice-turned-Druid Granuaile and wolfhound Oberon alongside him, Atticus must race across Europe to one of the few sanctuaries left that might take him beyond the sights of the goddesses (and their other divine allies) who want nothing more than to see him dead at all costs. Oh, and did I mention he has to do this while keeping Ragnarok from being unleashed?

THE CONTRAST: Sixth in the Iron Druid series, like the rest, this story is set in the modern day, with Atticus getting up to his usual mythological mischief. The gods in these novels are less their own creatures and more global anthropomorphic personifications, only able to take the forms and powers that humanity has bestowed on them due to our collective consciousness and active worship, to varying degrees. These gods are often highly emotional, petty, and can hold the smallest grudge for thousands of years, and are prone to slaughtering innocents on a whim (or because it’s momentarily entertaining).

THE VERDICT

So, which theological framework out of these three might be most worth your time, if you’re crunched for reading space?

In this case, Hunted, being the sixth in a series that also includes a handful of short stories and novellas, may not be the best place to be exposed to Kevin Hearne’s work. I’ll point you back to the very beginning and encourage you to start there and work your way through all the excellent installments in the Iron Druid tales. They’re well worth the time, and often prove a quick read because of the snappy humor, solid action, and larger-than-life characters.

Promise of Blood is an…er…promising start to a new epic fantasy series, and Brian McClellan’s debut draws a lot of comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s work for good reasons. Inventive, varied, and detailed magic systems bring this world to life, and thousands of years of history seem to fall into sudden relief through the current plot events. However, there are a few pacing issues and a noticeable dearth of effective female perspectives. It fits the epic fantasy mold well, and fans of that genre will not be disappointed.

This go-round, Three Parts Dead wins the final verdict! This is in part to the amazingly crafted and insanely creative world the story takes place in. Max Gladstone throws readers into the chaos of the plot and lets them sink or swim for themselves. Tara is a force to be reckoned with in her own right, and the amoralistic tactics she often resorts to make for a much more interesting character than someone driven by purely altruistic or fiendish motives. The unique perspective of gods as legal beings is refreshing and fascinating, while there’s no lack whatsoever of action to satisfy readers who want adrenaline pumped into the mix.

Got a divinely inspired read that needs some extra believers or deserves faithful literary fans? Kick ‘em into the comments below so they receive their proper respects. And in the meantime, give some dues to the aforementioned reads and help a few pantheons stick around to keep humanity company.

Let’s just pray they hold off on the fire and brimstone a little longer.

11 thoughts on “Oh Ye of Little Faith – Stories of Belief”

  1. Yeah, I need to read Gladstone’s books…

    I think Hunted is a bit of a third wheel in your list, though, Josh, since its about mythological entities rather than belief on the part of the characters. Atticus’ belief (or lack of it) doesn’t play a role here as it does for Tamas and Tara.

    An old example I’d like to highlight is THE CASE OF THE TOXIC SPELL DUMP, where the power of the Gods is definitely proportional to worship and belief, and some old “useful” Gods are still worshipped and sacrificed to in order to keep them alive and doing their job.

    1. I’ll have to check that one out. Haven’t heard of it. I’ll agree that the Iron Druid series isn’t as grounded in the actual characters’ beliefs in the gods, but thought it interesting in how humanity shaped their existence by how we perceived them in various incarnations.

  2. The best religion I ever found in any genre book was in The Curse of Chalion. I love Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, but Chalion takes the hat. Superb.

      1. I can’t speak for The Ragi, but I also really love Bujold’s first Curse of Chalion book for the way it handles religion—it’s one of the few modern epic fantasies to foreground theological questions. Issues of faith, the nature of divine action, and the relationship of the gods to the physical world, are all subtly handled in the course of a compelling human story about love, redemption, and political struggle. “A Prayer for Owen Meaney in a Fantasy World” sounds a bit trite, but the comparison holds I think. Part of the reason the book works is that Bujold’s secondary world is almost unmagical at first glance—it’s based heavily on medieval Spain—so questions about destiny and the relationships of gods to their faithful hold a little more weight than in settings where folks run around spouting prophecy at every opportunity, or having tea with gods. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter! C.V. my own work. :) )

        Thanks for the article! It was a fun read.

  3. You can’t do a roundup like this without including Zachary Jernigan’s NO RETURN, which explores how one might practice atheism (or at least, rejecting god) in a world where everyone has proof that a god exists. Definitely worth everyone’s time, and a book that needs some serious love, so that Jernigan can go write some more books.

    1. Ooh, that is a good one too. I quite enjoyed No Return, and should find a spot for it in a future cage match.

      1. Cool. And this wasn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy THREE PARTS DEAD, because I definitely did. I think we need more books about magical lawyers, and magical financiers (as in Daniel Abraham’s books).

        1. It’s quite possible to enjoy more than one book. :) Thank goodness these things aren’t exclusive.

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