Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray (book review)
GENRE: YA Fantasy LENGTH: 474 pages
Indentured zookeeper Koffi and exiled warrior Ekon team up to take down a jungle monster that is terrorizing their people. Adiah leans to control her powerful magic.
Koffi was a character with whom I had a complex relationship. I had trouble getting a feel for her at first and was just sort of indifferent towards her. Then I was frustrated with her impulsivity that put herself and others in jeopardy. It wasn't until she began to explore her magic and another event (which I can't get into because it's a spoiler) that I began to actually like her because she demonstrated compassion and bravery. She's far from a favorite character, but I have hope I'll like her more in the sequel.
Ekon, on the other hand, was someone I connected with right away. He reminded me of Henry from The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab in that he is desperate for acknowledgement, love, and respect. He developed a habit of counting and being superstitious in regards to numbers (particularly the number 3). His obsessive habits reminded me so much of my OCD to the point it was almost unnerving.
Koffi and Ekon's relationship includes instalove, which I've been quite vocal in NOT being a fan of. It robs readers of the ability to watch love blossom and makes relationships feel hollow. However, what I did really like was how both Koffi and Ekon contributed to their alliance. Both brought skills to their team that were useful and unique to them so that it never felt like one was more essential than the other.
Adiah is, like Koffi, a dajara (a person capable of using magic). She, like Koffi, was also quite reckless. I didn't mind her behavior as much because it was more understandable given her history (whereas it wasn't so much with Koffi's). There's a lot to her story that I can't get into without spoilers, but she had the most compelling story line of all the characters.
The novel is told in two different timelines with one being a century ago and the second being present day. The past chapters are told from Adiah's first person perspective while the present day chapters alternate between Koffi and Ekon's third person perspectives. I generally don't like it when authors mix narrative styles within the same novel. I'm assuming Gray did this to further distinguish between the timelines, but really it read as unnecessary. It was genuinely jarring when I read the first chapter in first person POV and then the next chapter it was switched up on me. I got used to it as the novel progressed, but it never fully jived with me.
This novel had exquisite pacing. There is quite a bit of establishing of world and characters' motives before the journey begins. Their time in the jungle is quite chaotic but in a good way that mirrors the wild, mystic feeling of the place. The final part of the novel has lots of tension and shocking reveals that perfectly set up the sequel. So, if you're intimidated by the length of this novel then I am here to assure you that every page of this book is justified.
Within this world there are two groups of people (the Yaba and the Gede) though both worship the same six gods.The religion of the world is actually quite important within the novel's plot but I can't get more into without spoilers (I know I keep saying that, I'm sorry).
The world's history is explored in part in Adiah's chapters (we love showing not telling). Once there were people in their world known as darajas who practiced magic but that was (mostly) lost in a deadly event known as the Rupture. After this darajas still existed but were much rarer and weren't trained. Even though this has inklings of the overused forbidden magic trope in YA fantasy I at least appreciate how it was justified within the story.
The magic system is very simple but cool. Magic comes from the earth and is referred to as splendor. Some people can naturally harness it but they should never hold it inside their bodies. Instead, darajas are bridges who can take the splendor in and then redirect it. I am hoping we get to see splendor explored more in the sequel. The explanation of how magic is utilized really intrigued me. Based on the little we saw of magic in this world we can see how much potential and raw power it has. I saw another reviewer compare this book to Written in Starlight by Isabel Ibañez who is one of my favorite authors. I can definitely see the comparison given both feature a male and female character traveling through a magical jungle. As someone who has read a handful of forest fantasy books, though, I wouldn't necessarily give that as the main comparison. Instead, I would compare it to several others. The first one is Tricia Levenseller's book Warrior of the Wild. Both books feature warriors who are outcasts and must travel into a dangerous jungle to kill a beast. If we are discussing purely the vibes of the jungle then I would compare it to Lori M. Lee's Forest of Souls and Ashley Poston's Among the Beasts and Briars. Both exude the same unsettling, creepy feeling as the Greater Jungle.
I've read my fair share of forest fantasies and this one is on par with the others. There wasn't as much time spent in the jungle as I was expecting, but as I said in the narrative style/pacing section I liked the way Gray parceled out the story. I am absolutely going to be picking up the sequel when it comes out.
FINAL RATING: 3.75⭐️