Fantasy Novel Review: Small Gods of Calamity by Sam Kyung Yoo

This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Small Gods of Calamity was released on March 4, 2024.

I read my first Sam Kyung Yoo story this winter, and it was good enough to immediately find and read a second, which was better. With a couple successes like that in the books and a debut novel with an extremely unintimidating page count of just around 150 pages, I decided to give Small Gods of Calamity a try. 

Small Gods of Calamity teases a pretty familiar urban fantasy premise, albeit in a much different setting than typical US-based works. A cop with unusual spiritual sensitivity tackles high-stakes supernatural crime, often without the support of a department that’s deeply ignorant of the supernatural world. In this case, it’s a Seoul-based detective trying to hunt down a ravening worm spirit that has taken several lives already—including that of his mother. But Small Gods of Calamity doesn’t read much like a police procedural, with a heavy focus on the lead’s recovery from the traumatic loss of a parent and the little magical details that may allow him to finally put an end to the threat. 

While I would normally consider a character-driven story about grief and trauma recovery an improvement over a police procedural, Small Gods of Calamity often feels like two separate stories awkwardly smashed into one pint-sized novel that doesn’t fully commit to either one. While the lead’s uncomfortable relationship with his partner and his department often feels like a sideshow, mentioned periodically as if only to remind the reader that this is indeed his job, there’s still a lot of time spent on the little details of the investigation. That there is a worm spirit on the loose is known from the beginning, but the story goes into depth about the little charms and spells that might either protect against it or allow the lead to track its movement. 

At the same time, the story also goes into great detail on the lead wrestling with loss, with guilt over failures to save everyone, and with patient zero being cured and active in the community while so many others are destroyed. There’s a lot of psychological turmoil, and a queer, ace romantic subplot tossed in with all of it. 

In a 300-page novel, I don’t think the two stories would have had any trouble coexisting. In a novella, either side could’ve carried the story on its own. But in a short novel like Small Gods of Calamity, there’s not enough time to delve thoroughly into both, and the result is two elements alternately coming into and out of focus, neither being totally ignored but neither really getting the attention they need to feel fully fleshed out. 

There are undoubtedly plenty of good pieces here. The prose leans more toward the colloquial than stylized, but Yoo has real storytelling chops, and the story of recovery at the heart of the novel is a compelling one that combines with the worm-fighting plot in a way that made it clear why they chose to put both on display. But the jump from short stories to short novels requires a different sort of pacing that doesn’t quite come together here, with too many magical details for a streamlined novella but a recovery narrative that moves too quickly and a main plot elides too much of the actual police dynamic to feel robust as a novel. I’ll certainly be reading more of Yoo’s work, but they’re still more polished in short fiction than in this debut novel. 

Recommended if you like: bi/ace disasters hunting terrifying spirit-worms amidst recovery from personal trauma and possibly a romantic subplot (yes, I understand that is very specific)

Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Author of Color and Published in 2024 and is also Indie Published and Features a Disabled Character. 

Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads. 

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