2018’s Temper is a standalone secondary world fantasy novel by Nicky Drayden.
A few pitiful singletons aside, every person has their twin. When one of the pair has a virtue, their twin will have the corresponding vice. There are seven virtues and seven vices; hence it is inevitable that one of the pair will have more virtues, one will have more vices.
Auben is remarkably vice-ridden; he has six of the possible seven vices. His twin Kasim has six virtues. Not that this bothers Auben; he enjoys his vices and is certain that he is smart enough to avoid their consequences.
Then Auben engages with Icy Blue.
No human is entirely virtuous; no person is entirely sinful. But there are supernatural beings not bound by this law. The divinity named Grace has all seven virtues; her sibling Icy Blue possesses every vice. Wise people avoid contact with the casually homicidal Icy Blue if at all possible. Auben lets Icy Blue into his head.
Auben soon regrets this. The smart thing to do would be to rid himself of the demon. Yet if he goes to the authorities he might be punished himself. He thinks he has an out: he and Kasim will blackmail their estranged father into sending them to one of the nation’s best schools. There they hope to find a way to end Auben’s possession.
Why would Kasim go along with this? Grace is living in his head. Being invariably virtuous is not as much fun as one might expect. Nor is it safe for anyone near Kasim. Grace is harsh on moral lapses.
The twins’ plan to free themselves from Grace and Icy Blue is bold and cunning. It is also dangerous. If the plan fails, two godlike beings will walk the Earth, looking like humans but still wielding great powers. Icy Blue will kill for the fun of it; Grace will punish sin. The human race may not survive.
Many fantasy authors draw on real world models for their settings. Drayden is inspired by Southern Africa. How closely her secondary world mirrors the real one is unclear, but the novel is set in a region dominated by the Nri Empire; the text also mentions the Ottoman Empire. There’s even evidence that Europeans exist, in the form of
“death traders” skimming around the ocean in their sailing ships, and their “skin the color of sun-bleached bone”
The death traders tried but failed to overthrow the Nri and the Ottomans and all the kingdoms in between. Long-ago history or perhaps myth. Auben isn’t sure these ogres were real.
Many fantasy authors write weirdly monotone worlds, where entire continents have less cultural variation than a small village. When there are separate cultures, it’s because there are several species, each with its own monolithic culture. Drayden eschews this simplification; her world is one in which there are many human cultures and those cultures often intermingle.
So there’s intercultural tension and conflict. There’s also a conflict between the folks who want to do science and technology and those who hold to the old ways and the old gods. I would like to say that Team Pure and Applied Reason are the good guys in this book, but it’s not so. It turns out that just as pure virtue and pure vice are vexatious, people who have convinced themselves that they are entirely reasonable can also be difficult1.
Auben narrates and does his best to convince readers that he is but a charming rogue, not a hardened villain. After all, his escapades are limited to attempted seduction and unsanctioned homework; it’s Icy Blue who leaves the trail of bodies behind him. While he is not quite as blameless as he’d like to believe, he is endearing in his way.
From characters to world-building, from plot to prose, this is a worthy follow-up to Drayden’s debut novel. It proves that The Prey of Gods was no fluke.
1: Grace and Icy Blue are real, but Auben and Kasim’s uncle is pretty sure that they’re just fictions invented by the elite to keep the sheeple in line.