Book Review: No Gods, No Monsters
By L.A. Hunt
Monsters hide in plain sight in Cadwell Turnbull’s second novel, No Gods, No Monsters. At the midpoint, when crowds take to the streets to advocate for the rights of the newly discovered monsters, Turnbull writes, “Even in a cause that is stacked against them, no one is alone.” Turnbull deftly examines what it means to live life hiding secrets and the implications in deciding to reveal them.
Turnbull allows one of the characters to explain the title of the novel as being “an evolution of an anarchist slogan: ‘No gods, no masters,’ the original version meaning no human above. It is meant as a call against hierarchy.” Turnbull is tackling important divisions that have arisen since the summer of George Floyd. He explores the complexities of race, sexuality, and otherness and pieces them together, trying to solve the puzzle of their intersectionality. In his world of monsters and magic, the characters strive to make sense of a senseless world. Otherness, in particular, resonates in Turnbull’s universe where pronouns are important, vital even. The character Melku reveals to their human friends they are a monster and explains, “Some of you are people of color, and some of you are part of the queer and trans community, like me. Many of the most vulnerable monsters are also a part of these communities.” Turnbull’s writing strives to normalize otherness while also acknowledging the struggle away from otherness is compounded by monsters (and people) who are labeled “at risk” for various reasons, mostly the violence the world perpetrates on them.
Turnbull’s mission for otherness to be normalized is explored in the more central character of Laina, who is in a committed relationship with Ridley—who’s asexual (“ace”) and trans—but also has a loving girlfriend, Rebecca, who is a werewolf. Turnbull subverts the heterosexual love triangle to normalize his characters’ triangle. The math is the same with three people, Laina, Rebecca, and Ridley, in an entanglement. What difference does it make if one of them is trans and the other two are lesbians?
And then there’s Calvin, the omniscient time-traveling character—or perhaps time-morphing is a more accurate description—who interrupts the mostly third-person narration with first-person commentary that zaps the reader to attention, a masterful conceit. The novel starts out very ordinarily from Calvin’s perspective. But as soon as the reader encounters an early chapter consisting of just two lines—“I’m going to tell you a story. And, like so many stories, this one begins with a body”—they are immediately put on notice that their normal reading experience will be abandoned and attention must now be paid. Calvin’s first-person narration is discarded and third-person takes over. Turnbull chooses specific moments to use first-person amidst the third-person narration, and the switch in narration amplifies moments that are turning points for individual characters. Early on, Melku senses a presence, Calvin, and directly addresses him: “Don’t be rude. Introduce yourself.” Later, Calvin appears as Melku realizes they may be the only one that can see the whole picture and speaks to him again: “Finally. . . .An introduction.” Calvin finds the courage to make himself known to Melku and Melku accepts that he is there for a reason—allyship. Turnbull purposefully guides the reader toward an alliance between the two and hints that their powers may work in unison.
However, Turnbull is interested not just in the otherness of sexual identity but also the otherness of racial identity. The inciting incident of the novel—Laina finding out her brother, Lincoln, has been fatally shot—sets the narrative in motion. Turnbull pointedly uses the racial tensions we see on the news of unarmed black men and women left for dead in the streets, often the result of police brutality and designs the incident as a turning point for the world of the novel, it becomes known as “the fracture.” Turnbull sets out to capitalize on the context readers already have for the relationship between law enforcement and the roots of racism. The fracture in the novel is the world waking up to its own complacency around the issue of racial inequity in the same way wokeness has become the legacy of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. Lincoln’s death, captured on cell phone video, goes viral, revealing he was a werewolf. Turnbull’s characters react to the – monsters among us – news the same way the world has reacted to critical race theory, with more panic, hate crimes, division, and derision. Turnbull never flinches away from but rather leans into the harsh reality that people will deny, deny, deny the things they see with their own eyes, like monsters, or magic, or racial injustice. Turnbull knows he must not preach to his readers, so he uses supernatural elements as substitutes for the hatred and intolerance that exist in the world. This creates distance for the reader to see connections Turnbull is making without the writing ever feeling heavy-handed or strident.
Turnbull knows his vision is vast in dimension, so he chooses to focus on creating uniquely memorable characters. The expert world-building of this first book in a series brings together seemingly unrelated characters and weaves together multiple storylines that payoff in the final third yet leave much unanswered, a nod to deeper relationships being developed as the series progresses. Readers are introduced to twins Sondra, a senator, and Sonya, her invisible sister. Dragon, a little boy with monstrous powers is taken advantage of by a sinister organization, the Order of the Zsouvox. Its counterpart, the Order of Asha, seeks to manage what humans know and don’t know about the monsters living among them. As one character observes, “If there are malevolent secret societies, it makes sense that there would be benevolent ones. They’ve probably been in a secret conflict for a long time, only now the war has spilled over into our world.” Turnbull is nodding to the post-Trump political divisions that separate this nation and the notion that good cannot exist without evil, ever. And so it goes.
In the end, Turnbull’s monsters want the same things humans want—love, acceptance, and safe harbor. It is this humane quest that grounds the novel and adroitly avoids an otherworldly science fiction categorization. It is the similarities between the monster world and the human world that Turnbull exploits, turning the unwelcome mirror on the reader to illuminate complicity. If you have seen something, Turnbull asks, why have you never said anything? How has your inaction enabled the world to linger in apathy? Turnbull isn’t interested in easy answers. No Gods, No Monsters is Turnbull’s call to action. He demands the reader interrogate their own complacency, then decide, once and for all, to stand up, band together, and blow both sides to smithereens so that the only thing left to do is see each other fully, not as others but as brothers and sisters.
L.A. Hunt is an author and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She has worked in education for twenty years as both a teacher and an administrator and hopes for a future where her students will forge their own path and right the wrongs history has inflicted upon them. Lori is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency program.