This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon will be released August 8, 2023.
Every once in a while, an author I’ve enjoyed immensely writes a book that doesn’t really sound like my thing, and I wonder whether the storytelling will carry me through or whether a plot well outside my wheelhouse will keep me from fully immersing. This was the case when Wole Talabi, whose short fiction “The Regression Test” and “A Dream of Electric Mothers” were favorites of mine, announced an urban fantasy heist novel starring a succubus and a nightmare god: Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon.
Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon takes place in a world where gods derive their power from faith and acts of worship. In an attempt to maximize their returns, they’ve formed spirit companies, with Shigidi sending nightmares and sometimes killings to bring some meager power back to the Orisha spirit company. But an encounter with a succubus provides the glimpse of another life, if he can pay off his debt to the emeritus CEO. And recovering a magical artifact stolen by the British for display in a museum could be just the thing to erase his debt and start a new life.
The story flits back and forth in the timeline, showing backstory and present day action for Shigidi, his succubus partner Nneoma, and the most powerful figures within the Orisha company. The present-day storyline focuses on the heist, Shigidi’s relationship with Nneoma, and the internal Orisha politics, whereas the flashbacks deliver bits of backstory, usually right before a relevant secondary character is introduced to the present-day plot.
I often struggle with major god characters because they’re too powerful, but Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon does an excellent job establishing limitations—they can’t do much without renewing power, are mostly limited to areas of specialty, and have plenty of rival deities that are just as powerful, if not more so. That said, I did find it difficult to truly invest in characters that derived so much power from consuming human spirits. They weren’t even cast as villain protagonists—which can make for an interesting dynamic—so much as divine forces acting in accordance with their own natures. That won’t be an obstacle for everyone, but for me, it was.
That said, there’s still plenty left to latch onto, with both plot-related and interpersonal dramas. Perhaps the most grounded part of the novel was Shigidi trying to sort out his relationship with someone who sustains her power by trading on her supernatural sexual desirability but who has been badly burned by love. For all that they may be gods and demons, their struggles to define the relationship are deeply rooted in the real.
The heist and Orisha politics, on the other hand, were written well enough to sustain the reader’s attention but didn’t really stand out from other examples in the genre. New obstacles and dangers were introduced frequently enough to keep the tension high, but an extremely compressed planning phase kept the scheming to a minimum. For me, the most notable part of the heist plot was in the worldbuilding, highlighting the colonial theft that made it at all necessary.
On the whole, while I could see the writing quality that has made Talabi’s short fiction so appealing (and I even caught a reference to the excellent novelette “Saturday’s Song” in Shigidi’s backstory), I wasn’t able to immerse at the same level in Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon. It was hard to be too sympathetic to characters who consume human spirit, and the plot lacked the scheming elements that I often find the most interesting part of heist stories. But to those who enjoy a little more action, or who don’t mind divine characters who don’t truck with human morality, there’s plenty to like, with rich worldbuilding and an intriguing interpersonal story.
Recommended if you like: action-heavy heists, god protagonists, West African worldbuilding.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Published in 2023, and it also is written by a POC Author and Features Angels and Demons (hard mode if you count Nneoma as a second protagonist).
Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.