Review: ‘Forest Gods’ by Ryan Campbell

At last! At long, long last! After waiting for a couple years, I’ve read the latest instalment of Ryan Campbell’s ‘Firebearers trilogy’, confusingly called ‘Forest Gods’. I’m telling you that ever since I finished reading ‘God of Clay’ some months ago, I have been itching to know what happened in the cliffhanger I was left on, and what will happen to our main character. Is it better than the first book, and can Ryan Campbell continue making a romantic relationship between a leopard deity and a young human man less uncomfortable than it would sound at first? Read on to find out.

In the wake of the last book, the god of the forest Kwaee has turned his entire domain against the human villagers outside his jungle, killing anyone whom he believes to be allied with the demonic fire god Ogya. And after running for the savanna in the wake of all this, Kwaee’s son Doto and his human lover Clay must embark into the neighboring savannas in search of a god whom they believe will help them find out the truth. Both will have to sacrifice their morals, risk their lives, and maybe even the happiness they may or may not be able to have.

Meanwhile, back in Clay’s home, Laughing Dog has returned in ways too different to explain. His and Clay’s father, King First Claw, has died under mysterious circumstances, and their grieving but slow-minded brother Great Ram has taken the throne in these dark times. Little does anyone know however, that Ogya has taken possession of Laughing Dog, and is using the agnostic believer’s naïveté to cause tension among the other villagers through acts of framing, hoping to rile them into attacking the forest and finally reignite the ancient war with Kwaee.

The only two people who see through the young prince’s actions are the tribe’s elderly healer named Cloud, and the prince’s promised fiancé named Ant With a Leaf. Determined to save their people from unknowingly killing themselves, Any and Cloud must throw aside their status as women and challenge the prince and puppet king before it’s too late. Will they both succeed and save humanity, or will Ogya’s fire consume the village and everything in its path?

It’s very clear in the first several that real shit will go down as the book progresses, and Ryan Campbell brilliantly allows the scenery and emotions to drip together with the narrative. There’s more drama, much darker moments between the line, and I had to stop myself from skipping ahead several times to keep reading each page. As you guess, I absolutely loved it.

The best thing about this book is both the theme and how it has heavily impacted the characters, and it is change. From the last book to this one’s cliffhanger, ‘Forest Gods’ does the right balance of commenting on change while we read about our characters’ journeys. Everyone in the novel talks about how they miss the old days, and feel like an impending doom is coming to their way of life. It is an understandable feeling, as many people in today’s world have the same feeling whether they’re religious or not. However, the novel isn’t preaching to abandon beliefs, but to adapt to the change in order to survive.

Doto and Clay go through a similar situation on their new journey, except it starts to turn into a romantic relationship between a god and a mortal. You might remember from my review of the last book that they both had a sex scene, and I must inform you there are a few in ‘Forest Gods’ as well. However, the book doesn’t go into intimate detail, and focuses more on the story and relationship between the two. Granted, the idea of a human and anthropomorphic leopard being in a sexual relationship sounds very disturbing still, but then again if authors can get away with werewolf romances, why not this? Besides, werewolf romances these days are crap compared to this.

Clay is still the optimistic human from the first book, but learns how the gods have abused their power. He’s emotional, but quick on his feet while keeping good morals. He’s noble, but will challenge kindness when it is needed. And despite his devotion to Doto (both spiritually and romantically), Clay has limits to how far the leopard would go to hurt others in their way.

In ‘God of Clay’, Doto originally treated his human companion as though he’s nothing more than a subordinate worshipper. In ‘Forest Gods’, he still cares for Clay, but slowly learns to consider him an equal. He’s still impatient and serious, but will protect Clay from anything. He’s determined, but learns humility from Clay. He also learns how to have emotions, and doesn’t know how to feel about them, especially in dramatic scenes. The one that tugs at my heartstrings is when Doto finds out someone about his legacy he never know, and how it ties him into the war between Kwaee and Ogya. I won’t give anything away, but you feel the weight that Doto feels once it’s discovered.

Aside from the two couple, but I was strangely surprised to have Cloud and Ant, two minor characters from the first book, become the secondary characters in the novel. I barely even remembered them in ‘God of Clay’, but reading the newest book and getting to know them better has made me wonder why Ryan Campbell didn’t give them more focus? I absolutely love them, as they remind me of some people I knew growing up in my family. Cloud is an elderly woman that’s strong and has a clever wit despite her old age, is independent but knows when to ask for help, and she perfectly mirrors Ant’s will to do what is right for the village. In fact, I remember ‘Bookworm Reviews’ on Youtube mentioning that his only problem with the first book as that Ant didn’t have a personality. This highly makes up for it, and she’s thoroughly entertaining (and David Popovich, if you’re reading this, I highly recommend this for a future review).

That reminds me. The only complain I have regarding characters is this one that popped out of nowhere and wasn’t mentioned again in detail. It was Adanko, the God of Hares and Lies who seemed too amusing to be a background character. At first it seems like he’ll be the comic relief of the story, but he comes and goes without a second though.

Then we have Laughing Dog, who has turned from an agnostic child who whines and complains in the last book into an unpredictable beast with his older brother’s kingly position wrapped around his finger. I love and fear how he manipulates the King so easily just by being related to him, showcasing how Laughing Dog isn’t just a tough guy with a knife. He’s a conniver and a plotter, trying to keep a façade of honor and charisma to his people while willingly working for Ogya. The way he puts blame on Kwaee, frames Cloud, twists others words against them, it’s like you’ve entered the infamous McCarthy Trials!

I find aspects like this the most terrifying in a villain, because it makes us wonder when they can be threatening, whether they’re about to strike you down or not. Both are unpredictable, overconfident in their goals, and will not hesitate to kill anyone, even family and loved ones, in their way of success.

Once again, Ryan Campbell astounds me in a fantastic novel of family, beliefs, and love. Enriched with African culture, vast in journeys across landscapes, and seeded with an addictive plot, I highly recommend reading this after taking a gander at the first book.

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Review: ‘God of Clay’ by Ryan Campbell

‘God of Clay’ is the first book in Ryan Campbell’s ‘Firebearers trilogy’, and a personal favorite of mine. This is an intriguing YA(ish?) novel for those like me that love diversity, especially if it’s in African tribalism. I mentioned this book before in my review of ‘The Golem and the Jinni’, and how amazing it was in feeling like a legend or a fairytale, except it has modern story telling with fleshed out characters, a simple storyline, and a mythos that feels too genuine to be fiction. With that said, there are a few things in ‘God of Clay’ that may turn a few heads. It’s not a problem or anything, but it is worth talking about later on.

In a vast African land of animal deities and spirits, a tribe of humans have settled near the edge of a massive jungle next to their savanna home. After losing their lands to a wrathful god of fire named Ogya, they hope to start anew while praying for miracles. And in this nomadic tribe are Clay and Laughing Dog, two brothers (and sons of the tribe’s King) more polar opposites than mine. Clay devotes himself greatly to the gods and worships without hesitation while Laughing Dog believes them to be nothing but ancient legends. After both brothers make a bet that end up with Clay having an injured foot, Laughing Dog ends up being banished by his father as punishment and for endlessly mocking the gods. Clay soon becomes depressed, and prays for a miracle.

That miracle comes to him one night in the form of an anthropomorphic leopard named Doto, the son of the forest god Kwaee, who has been tasked by his despicable father into kidnapping a human and finding out why they have come to his forest. Kwaee loathes humanity, and sees them as vermin who burn and destroy in the name of Ogya. After Doto manages to convince Clay that he himself is (technically) a god, the reverent human ventures with the leopard on their journey. At first, Doto mirrors his father’s views on the human, until he begins to realize how similar he is to Clay, and that they may share a bond that transcends taboo in their world. However, little do they know that the two of them have a shared destiny that will change both them and their worlds forever.

In the three years that this has come out, I am absolutely shocked that this has not gotten that much attention or reviews by other critics. Granted it isn’t published by a massive publishing company, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that this is an intelligently written book that I frankly believe deserves to be adapted into a film someday (I said it, so believe it!).

Let’s firstly talk about the two main characters Doto and Clay. Clay is presented as a meek but confident human who worships his gods with great devotion. He may not be strong or intelligent in the wilderness, but he’s very optimistic when he wants to be. This highly contrasts to Doto who is basically a self-righteous little child that sees Clay as nothing more than subordinate. Even so, he has this fragile belief that he’ll gain the love and attention of his uncaring father by following his bidding. This allows us to understand his mindset and know why he acts the way he does toward Clay, and we begin to warm up to him more as the both of them tear down the barriers of god/mortal to survive on their journey. This eventually leads to both the leopard deity and human mortal wondering why there’s a divide between gods and humans and if it can and should be broken.

Laughing Dog’s story is also very wonderful to read. Here we have a young man who’s convinced that the gods are nothing but myths and legends, and is angered and bitter that the people and elders of his village do not see his point of view. However, he’s not a stick in the mud or an asshole; you understand that he only wants to help his tribe survive in the harsh environment and sees the reliance on gods as an obstacle for progress towards a better life. What I love about this is that Laughing Dog isn’t a one-sided villain who hates religion for the sake of it, he only wants his tribe and the rest of humanity to rely on themselves and not in faith. ‘God of Clay’ wonderfully touches on issues such as the separation of church and state, belief vs. faith, tradition vs. change, and it makes you question (in the words of the novel):

“How far would you go to follow your gods? And how hard would you fight to defy them?”

Much like another small personal favorite of mine named ‘Things Fall Apart’ by the late Chinua Achebe, ‘God of Clay’ makes itself timeless and beautifully descriptive by telling the culture and daily life of this tribe, which it helps us connect to the characters. Campbell even incorporates actual African tribal culture into their world. For example, Clay mentions to his companion that whenever a woman gives birth, it’s tradition for her to name the child after the first thing she sees. Reading the novel, you hear every mosquito buzz by your ear and feel the heartbeat of the African landscape through every page that your fingers touch. Combine all of that with a good plot and complex characters, and it’s an addictive read.

Before you go buy this book (which I still highly recommend), I should probably warn you of a scene that comes up later in the book. It’s not a major spoiler, since it is highly hinted at early on in the novel, but this may be a huge turn-off for a few readers. Remember how I mentioned that the main character’s bond transcends taboo in their world?

See…Doto and Clay have a physical attraction for each other. Yes, a physical attraction between a walking-talking leopard deity and a human. There’s especially a scene in the third act where they get sexually intimate, but only for half a page. Going in, I didn’t know and thought it’d be a general friendship, but Ryan Campbell went the extra mile. And honestly, it could’ve been kept hidden, but I didn’t mind there being a romantic relationship between Doto and Clay, since it makes them even more interesting and makes you wonder if gods in their world are allowed to fall in love with humans, especially if both of them are male. Did a sex scene need to be in there? Probably not, but it didn’t last a whole page and I’ve read MUCH MORE mature content that’s allowed in school libraries.

Overall, ‘God of Clay’ is a perfect novel for the bookworm interested in cultural commentary and the perfect novel for fantasy-lovers. With a twist on African lore and a fictional realm you’ll never want to escape, go read Ryan Campbell’s first book in surely a phenomenal trilogy.

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