Book Review: Temper by Nicky Drayden
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Voyager (August 7, 2018)
Length: 368 pages
I’m still kicking myself for not having read Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, her debut novel which has been garnering all kinds of praise, so when I heard about Temper I decided to check it out. Unfortunately though, I did not take to it as well as I’d hoped. While the writing was excellent and the premise was as imaginative as anything I’ve seen in a while, the book was much too strange for my tastes, which led it to fail in delivering a story of impact.
Temper is a tale of two brothers, twins Auben and Kasim. In fact, in this alternate history novel, set in very different version of South Africa than the one we know, pretty much everyone has a twin. Each pair of siblings is also born with a set of seven vices and seven virtues evenly split between them (we’re talking charity vs. greed, humility vs. vainglory, etc.) which means that occasionally, one twin might end up with all the desired traits while the other is left with the short end of the stick.
Case in point, in their relationship, Auben is the “lesser” twin, since he was born with six vices and only one virtue, while Kasim is the “greater” twin, having won the genetic lottery with six virtues and one vice. This has affected the way society treats the brothers, since lesser siblings are often discriminated against for having more vices. Worse, the twins always have to be in close proximity to each other, else it leads to undesirable physical and mental side effects, so Auben has no choice but to watch as Kasim is showered with positive attention while he himself receives all the prejudice.
Even though the brothers love each other, Auben worries that one day the tensions will inevitably destroy their bond, leading them to grow apart. Lately, he has also been hearing these insidious whispers in his mind, goading him to surrender to his darker instincts—his vices. Growing increasingly perturbed, Auben wants to trust Kasim and share with him his fears and doubts, but he isn’t even sure if his twin, content with his charmed life, will be able to understand.
Temper is a novel whose ideas might make for a better thought experiment than a story. Resplendent with imagination and originality, the premise offers lots of potential for world-building, and indeed we have a unique setting here filled with rich history, culture, and mythology. The plot, however, was a bit of a mess. To reiterate my earlier point, this is a rather weird book, and I will be the first to admit I don’t often do well with weirdness in my speculative fiction. It tends to make me feel untethered, resulting in a difficult time connecting with the story and especially to the characters, and I think this is what happened here.
There was also a lot going on—perhaps a little too much. In addition to the extensive world-building, there was also a fair number of characters to keep track of, not to mention the author’s attempts at plot twists and intrigue. On the bright side, no one could ever accuse this book of being dull, though ironically, the information deluge sometimes affected the pacing and made the story feel slow. While reading this book, several times I would find myself stopping after a dozen pages or so only to realize little to no progress had been made in the plot. This also made things more confusing and further widened the emotional divide between me and Auben, the narrator and protagonist, causing a lot of the nuances in his personality to become lost in the noise. Consequently, I probably didn’t feel as sympathetic to his plight as I was meant to, and the impact of his and Kasim’s relationship was also dampened, weakening what could have been a moving story of brotherly trust and love.
Needless to say, Temper turned out not to be the kind of fantasy novel I typically go for—it was a bit too weird, a bit too offbeat and abstract. That said though, it is a very creative and ambitious endeavor, and if you like books that experiment with crossing genre boundaries or subverting traditional sci-fi and fantasy ideas, you might want to give this one a look. It might not have worked for me, but in the right hands, this book could be a real eye-opener.