The Orphanage of Gods by Helena Coggan

Hodder and Stoughton, 2019, 407 p. Published in Interzone 280, Mar-Apr 2019

 The Orphanage of Gods cover

The first thing to be said of this novel is that Coggan writes well. She has an eye for character and plot, and builds layer on layer of complication and betrayal. Don’t expect to see much of the titular orphanage however, as it is offstage for most of the book, though it does provide the setting for a final confrontation.

In this world some humans, called gods, have developed strange abilities, known as demesnes. One of the demesnes, of which gods may have one or several, is premonition. But, ‘Premonitions are evil, sneaky things. They leave out the important stuff.’ It is not only in that where godhood seems a diffuse and random attribute, handy for story-telling though it may be.

These gods became feared and were overthrown in a revolution 20 years before the events of the novel, the remnants being persecuted or forced into hiding. Any foundling children since then have been suspect and kept in the orphanage at Amareth under the watchful eye of the Guard till eighteen years after they were found, when they are tested. Godhood shows up in blood which has a silvery appearance, but not until a child matures. Some orphans manage to hide their demesne till test day but others’ powers manifest themselves before they can hide them. Those discovered are said to be taken north to a place named Elida.

Narrator Hero, plus Joshua and Kestrel, were allocated to a triple room in the orphanage. Hero is a healer and can sense heartbeats, Joshua can manipulate light and heat. Kestrel is a normal human but loves Joshua (and also Hero as a sister.) We take up the story with Hero and Joshua escaped from the orphanage – the first ever to do so – but only because Kestrel sacrificed her own freedom in the process. Hero is trying to keep Joshua safe so that they can make their way north in order to rescue Kestrel from where the Guard has surely taken her – to Elida, as bait. The book’s first scene is set in a disused tavern, but the Guard has patrol cars complete with sirens and tyres, which makes that word seem an archaic choice. But it is in keeping with the rest of the world here which, barring the patrol cars and a powered boat, is mostly non-technological, presumably regressed, though this is not really spelled out.

Hero refers to herself as a half-breed, though since she actually has a demesne the distinction is so fine as to be useless. In an encounter in the dark with a Guard patrol, with Joshua hiding, one of them cuts her and drinks her blood, failing to recognise its taste as godly. (Blood will saturate this book.) She and Joshua are free to travel onwards, meeting suspicion and horror in a village called Seabourne and an offshoot resistance group whose help they spurn.

For other authors the quest for Kestrel would have taken up most of the tale but Coggan has more for us. The tower in which other gods, and Kestrel, are held in Elida is a dark and ominous place, the activities the Guard carries on there hideous. Hero and Joshua finally penetrate the tower and effect the rescue but only by jumping from its highest point into the sea, which breaks Kestrel’s neck. Gaining land, they are surrounded by the Guard but saved by the resistance group, one of whom can teleport – others as well as himself.

Narration duties then devolve to Raven, a child god whose demesne is shape-shifting. Her innocence is intended to be the key to reconciling normal humans with gods. The resistance group’s leader, Cairn, calls her mala kralovna. (Slovak for ‘be queen’ I discovered.) Raven is as yet too young for her assigned role, though desperate to take part in actions against the Guard. Before the group makes contact with the bulk of the resistance both Cairn and Joshua are captured by the Guard.

The book’s final, longest, section is narrated by Kestrel, healed by dint of Hero’s power. The resistance leader, Anthony Abernathy, turns out to be less than enthused by the prospect of Raven as a saviour. Joshua’s return shows he has been made mad by his experiences, as, in effect, is Anthony when the Guard discovers the camp and overruns it. The methods he then resorts to in revenge are no better than his opponents.

The book is riddled with violence as well as blood but does emphasise that, once wielded, power is difficult to eschew. Godly powers possibly the more so.

One factor about dark fantasy such as this never fails to puzzle me. Why does it always have to be blood? Granted here Coggan provides a rationale of sorts, but it is usually pretty thin stuff.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- Throughout, the Guard and the resistance are treated as plural. Otherwise; despite the orphanage’s inmates being given triple rooms Hero tells us she one night went to that of another inmate who seems to be alone there. “When the first generation of gods were born” (when the first generation of gods was born.) “‘Bar the door if you want to live’” (three pages earlier the door had already been barred, [that was possibly from the outside but others are now clamouring to get in.]) “Yes I do. Idiot. Heartbeats.” (the Idiot is clumsy.) “We get there” – the coast – “near midnight . There’s a fishing town about ten miles west of us,” (fishing towns are usually on the coast.) “I feel nothing just weary resignation” (needs a comma after nothing,) offence (in British English – and this reads as British – it’s attack.) “Neither of the others speak.” (Neither of the others speaks, but there were more than two others, so it should have been, “None of the others speaks”,) “she’s is a monster” (either she is, or, she’s, not she’s is.) “The crowd are separating” (The crowd is separating,) “half of them are cheering” (half .. is cheering,) “the other half are screaming for Eliza” (the other half is screaming.) “Anthony’s battered army crawl like insects” (Anthony’s battered army crawls,) “into away from the city” (either into or away from, not both,) the crowd walk away (the crowd walks away.) “There’s a white–hot thread of power into her voice” (in her voice, or, “A white–hot thread of power has come into her voice.)

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