The Woken Gods has a wicked premise: what if the deities of various ancient mythologies were real entities, but at some point in time, for reasons lost to us, they were put asleep or fell asleep? What happens, then, if they wake up and return with a vengeance, and the only people who can stand against them are a shadowy secret society called the Society of the Sun that just happens to have made it its mission to collect relics and artifacts that can fight back?
In the middle of this epic landscape, Kyra Locke discovers that her father isn’t just a librarian for the Society. He’s a full-on operative, and her mother is the daughter of the Society’s director. When her father disappears, Kyra dives into a this world of secrets and myths to discover the truths hidden from her for so many years. In so doing, she uncovers a plot that stretches back to when the gods awoke five years ago, and if it comes to fruition, it could spell the end of humanity entirely….
So, yeah, Gwenda Bond has made sure the stakes are high. This is an intense novel, and there’s a lot of good, suspenseful moments in it. Bond provides no shortage of various antagonists and allies for Kyra, each of whom has their own quirks and quarrels. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel there were some things missing from this book, or just a little off, which it less enjoyable.
Mostly, I think it comes down to characterization, and a little bit of the narration. I can appreciate Kyra’s character: she doesn’t take shit from anyone, and when her dad tries to keep secrets from her and just tells her to skip town with a bunch of money, she decides to go after him instead. I can respect that. Yet there were times when she seems to make plans on the basis of very little information. She literally discovers this massive conspiracy and in the space of a few days tries to come up with a plan to stop it almost entirely single-handedly and with very little research, training, or preparation. Mix that in with some prophecy stuff I don’t want to spoil and you essentially arrive at a quasi–Chosen One situation, and that makes Kyra much less interesting.
Similarly, the supporting cast is unimpressive. There’s a half-hearted stab at a love triangle among Kyra and her two best friends, which is resolved kind of hurriedly at the end of the book. The two friends kind of recede into the narrative background for the middle acts, re-emerging when needed towards the end—yet there are occasionally shifts in perspective, chapters inserted that follow these characters, or others, in the third person, when Bond wants to show us something Kyra isn’t privy to. These seem to happen somewhat at random, though—obviously they aren’t without intention, but I’m not sure they really add much to the story.
Oz and Justin aren’t any more interesting either. Oz is an entirely-too-credulous and entirely-too-young-to-be-an-operative love interest for Kyra, but the romance, as with the aforementioned love triangle, seems to be more of an afterthought. He’s just generically attractive enough, apparently, but he’s mostly just there to play against Kyra, either as an ally or an obstacle. It’s rare that he gets much of a chance to show any agency of his own. Justin is supposed to be the more scholarly equivalent, and I do like that he takes against Kyra and still doesn’t like her at the end of the book, working with her rather out of necessity. That’s an interesting characterization choice.
(Also, at one point Justin says, of the timing of a ritual being midnight on the day of the June solstice, “That’s right at the exact moment of the solstice, when the sun is at its furthest point”. That’s … not how solstices work? The sentence is a little vague but seems to conflate the solstice with aphelion—not the same things—but I guess we could chalk this up to Justin being a little vague on how solstices work, or at least just bad at explaining them. Anyway.)
Everything about the gods in The Woken Gods is fascinating and fun, and I loved those scenes. Bond draws from a rich set of mythologies, referring to some of the more well-known gods, like Hermes and Set, but foregrounding some of the more obscure or less commonly referenced pantheons, like the Sumerian Enki and Nigerian Legba. Again, more interesting choices here.
I wish the human counterpart, the Society of the Sun, was more fleshed out. Bronson’s trip into the Locke family crypt and the little history lesson he gives Kyra provides us with some ideas. It’s just incredibly vague, the whole position of the Society in post-awakening society. Is it a paramilitary organization? An arm of government? It definitely isn’t secret anymore. We keep hearing about “operatives” and training, but there’s no real outline of the hierarchy. One might argue that none of these details are important to the plot at hand, that Bond is leaving out extraneous exposition, and I might be sympathetic to that. Yet I can’t help but feel like we’re missing enough to see this world working in a practical way, humans and gods at this awful, suspenseful detente.
That brings me to the plot, I guess. It’s … all right? Like I think I like it because it fits in the general mould of contemporary urban fantasy that plays with myths in this way. Think Tomb Raider (the movies): humans messing about with ancient artifacts and god-like powers to do something they really the hell shouldn’t, and it falls to a plucky protagonist to stop them. None of the themes or even the conflicts that The Woken Gods trades on are refreshingly original, but they’re done well enough that the story moves at a nice pace.
So I enjoyed reading this book, but when I reached the end, I just kind of shrugged. It’s all right. But I didn’t love the characters, and it feels pretty anticlimactic in places. It functions well enough as a standalone, which is appears to be. There are tantalizing threads left over for future books—but I’m not sure I’d actually want to read them.