BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Former cultist Jacob Hicks’ relatively innocuous life in New York City gets a kick in the rear as his sister comes to town to start the Apocalypse.
PROS:: A pair of strong characters as family protagonist and antagonist; excellent overall use of New York City as a setting.
CONS: Almost too much worldbuilding and things thrown into the Urban Fantasy blender; one tiny mistake regarding a locale in Staten Island.
BOTTOM LINE: A strong story that introduces a delightfully tasty and complicated urban fantasy world that consistently keeps the reader turning pages.
It’s a classic story as old as time. Farm boy from North Dakota goes to the big city (in this case New York City), gets into big trouble because he is a hick from the sticks. In Michael R. Underwood’s urban fantasy novel The Younger Gods, he even has the adopted last name to prove it. Jacob Hicks née Greene has bigger problems than just managing his classes and his job, and even dealing with the confusing maelstrom of culture that is New York. Jacob’s big sister is coming to town, and she is not happy with her baby brother at all. How does the farm boy, already somewhat adrift in an alien and confusing world, handle family coming to town on top of it?
Perhaps the first line of the novel might clarify why this is a genre novel instead of contemporary mainstream literature:
I expected many things after I left my family: the loneliness of being separated from my roots, serious financial hardship, and drastically fewer blood sacrifices with dinner.
Having explored Urban Fantasy from a Geek perspective in his Geekomancy novels and stories (Geekomancy, Celebromancy, Attack the Geek), The Younger Gods explores urban fantasy from a different perspective, borrowing from Mythos iconography as well as a host of other traditions to present a story about a family scion trying to bring about an apocalypse, and only black sheep Jacob and his friends to stop her.
Having a reluctant magic-using cultist as your fish-out-of-water protagonist is a striking move, and the author does an excellent job in balancing his strange level of knowledge with his basic naiveté about most aspects of modern society. How does a Dakota farm boy deal with the Big City? Sometimes well, and sometimes not. Jacob’s reluctance and inability to use the darker powers he has learned is just as much an effective dramatic shackle as his basic lack of knowledge of things we take for granted. He does a lot of growing up in the novel, and secondary characters grow to trust (or at least accept) Jacob for who and what he is.
As much as I like Jacob, however, it is the antagonist of Younger Gods that really held my attention in the book. Esther Greene is an unrepentant cultist, a woman on a mission, and baby brother had better stay out of the way, if not just join her side like a good Greene. We get only one tantalizing point of view from her perspective, but it was fascinating every time she appeared. The siblings have a fascinating dynamic when on the page together, a completely believable and immersed family dynamic, even for the fact they are both chthonic cultists. Esther drives Jacob and other characters to action throughout of the novel. Our protagonist has to level up and quickly to keep up with her or even just keep from falling behind.
The worldbuilding enthralled me as much as Jacob and his sister, or even more so. When I first heard about this book, I imagined it as “cultist in the city,” maybe a smattering of Mythos-like elements, and not much else. Instead, we get to meet a suite of different urban fantasy types jammed together in the greatest city of the world. From Jacob himself, a cultist, to emissaries of gods, fallen angels, sorcerers, lamias and even more. As a native of Staten Island, I was particularly amused when the protagonists take a visit to my hometown borough to meet with a group of werewolves lurking around the green center of the island. The world Underwood presents us with is like a cross between an Unknown Armies campaign fused with a spread of the supernatural splats from the World of Darkness (Vampire the Masquerade, Werewolf, Mage). The novel (like those sorts of campaigns) teeter on the edge of having too many supernaturals around, but it never goes over the edge.
The ending of The Younger Gods sets up any number of possible sequels and its even clear that Jacob could take his act “on the road” just as easily as exploring further the complexity of New York City.