Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore

Every now and again you find a book that is so closely matched to your tastes, you could almost believe the author had hypnotised you and questioned your deepest psyche about what made a truly superior story. Now I've met Bryan Wigmore a couple of times and he really doesn't seem the sort of guy who'd do that without my agreement, so clearly this is just one hell of a coincidence. Its also one hell of a book. I received an ARC one morning, read a little, read a little more, then eventually finished all 520 pages seven hours later. Its that good. In fact, spoiler alert: I'm going to tell you to buy The Goddess Project. I believe everyone should. However, I have to acknowledge my tastes are not objective truth, so let me tell you what this book is all about.

The long version is that The Goddess Project is the tale of two separate groups of people that come together in a search for secrets. The first is about a pair of freedivers (Orc and Cass) seeking out the artefact that can restore their lost memories. The second is about other a monk and his apprentice (Shoggu and Tashi) sacrificing their place on the holy mountain to chase down a nebulous threat. Together, these people fight crime get into serious trouble, all shown on a rich background of shamanism, naval arms races, secret conspiracies and diving. You might say they get in over their heads.

This is either the characters reaction to much of the plot, or your reaction to that pun. Works either way.

The short version is that this is what would have happened if His Dark Materials had grown up and run away to sea.

A lot of what makes that comparison so easy to make lies in the book's setting. There is the same collision point between an industrialising world and the spiritual, something of the same focus on the true nature of what goes beyond. Wigmore seems to approach the subject from a rather different view point and where His Dark Materials is provocative and maybe even a little angry, The Goddess Project seems more wry and amused by the subject. An example of this can be found in Otter, Orc's shamanic guide and arguably the best character in the book. The spirit manifestation of all things furry and fish munching takes an irreverent and cheerful approach with his charge, almost like Delboy and Rodney. Only with both of them having a clue what they're doing. Non-Brits, think... maybe Silk and Garion. Only better.

Nevertheless, there is something questioning and a bit iconoclastic here. Wigmore does not merely use the aesthetics of the early 1900s; he also engages with the nature of the beast in the way it divided humanity. There is something of a tendency in steampunk and other fantastical works drawing from the era to ignore these things in the name of adventure. Nor is it unknown for books to focus heavily on the darker side of those times. The Goddess Project walks the line. There are thoughts about the damage done by gender inequality and colonialism there if you want to read deeply and think but, if you're not particularly thinking about them, the subjects fade into the background in a way reminiscent of Pratchett. What it does do that will please everyone thought is create a deep, vivid, conflict-filled world for the story that really draws the reader in.

This is what happens when you let an Otter be the mentor, bruv

The real theme of this story though is identity. As already mentioned, we've got two characters who can't even remember who they are and another two who give up their place in the world, but pretty much everyone in this book is looking for or questioning their identity somehow. Its like the marbling in quality beef. Of course, it would be very easy to overdo this and end up with a cast as whiny as the worst of The Wheel of Time. This doesn't happen largely because the characters are constantly active and when they stop to think, its usually to wonder how on earth they're going to repair the damage they've done. However, while they're always doing something, they're not action heroes. Much as I enjoy some bloodletting, its very refreshing to see some protagonists solving their problems with their brains. Or at least trying to.

The best things about the characters though are how central they are to the plot. They are stumbling across the great submerged evil because they're seeking the answers to their own problems, managing the neat trick of being reluctant heroes while being pro-active all at once. Also, because the character's problems are so central to the plot, we get to spend a lot of time with them. Pretty much everything that happens shines a light on their personalities. They're not always the most sympathetic, but they're always ones you can empathise with and this adds a real emotional weight to their actions. I can't really go into details without spoilers but Cass gets some great scenes with the new friends she makes, Orc's final shamanic journey is awesome, and pretty much everything Tashi does is really cool. But particularly his first appearance and his bit right at the end. That said, what makes them great characters isn't their epic scenes or witticisms, its how real they feel due to how how much we dwell in their thoughts and depths.

This is traditionally the part of the review where I tell you what's wrong with the book. Well, the problem here is I feel bad recommending it so wholeheartedly as surely I must be missing something. My friends will pick it up expecting genius and go away disappointed. I know other advanced copy readers agree with my assessment but I can't escape that nagging feeling. Nothing can really be this good. Well, I think it might just be. I would allow however that some people might think Orc and Cass quarrel too much. I disagree but can see people not enjoying it. Also, anyone looking for high octane action is in the wrong place, as are those looking for political intrigue in the halls of kings. These are everyday folk solving their own immense mystical problems. If that's what you're looking for, The Goddess Project fits this well:

In any case, I think either I've sold you or I haven't by now. What makes a book good or bad is how well it fits your tastes and the tastes of others. We've already established the former in my case. I really believe it'll do a great job with the latter too. I haven't read a book this good since the downright incredible Bridge of Birds early in 2016. So go check The Goddess Project out. Even if its just the Kindle sample. I know not everyone will love this book as much as I do. I'll be surprised though if most fans of intrigue-heavy character-led fantasy don't really like this though. I really will.

The Goddess Project is out now, published by Snowbooks. It can be pre-ordered on or I would like to thank Bryan and Snowbooks for my Advanced Review Copy. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.