In Wole Talabi’s exciting fantasy adventure, Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, the spirit world has fallen on hard times. With dwindling followers to make faith offerings, the companies of the gods have to make do with diminished income, and their powers are not quite what they used to be. Shigidi is an ex-god of dream and nightmare who, before his transformation, had been reduced to taking orders of prayers to kill enemies of the faithful. He did this by entering the minds of victims to find their worst nightmares and intensifying them to the point of killing the dreamers. In his small and ugly human form, he felt like the reject of the gods, given the worst assignments, barely able to earn his keep.
That all changed when he met the spirit succubus Nneoma, who transformed him physically into a perfect human form and partnered with him as freelancers of the spirit world.
Moving at a fast pace from London to Lagos to Malaysia to Algeria to Spirit Space and back and forth through time, Talabi skillfully fills in the background of his formidable cast of characters: Nneoma, who lives by devouring the spirits of humans whom she seduces, yet the true feeling of love eludes her; Olorun, retired chairman of the board of the Orisha Spirit Company, now lacking some of his former strength and at odds with the current chairman, Shango, who has been steadily building his power; Eshu-Elegba, divine messenger, trickster orisha of chance and fate, and head of communications at the Orisha Spirit Company; Aleister Crowley, a human who has been gifted by Nneoma with extra lives and who has special magical knowledge.
The stories of these characters begin to come together when Olorun demands that Shigidi and Nneoma recover a crucial artifact, the brass head containing a god’s special power, from the British Museum, a place protected by formidable spiritual forces. So there is a heist adventure at the center of Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, but this is enriched and deepened by the high stakes for all involved. For Shigidi and Nneoma, it becomes a powerful test of their relationship and Nneoma’s ability to feel love, an emotion she has come to distrust because of deeply buried secrets in her centuries-old history.
Nneoma helps Shigidi by seeing through his ugly, shrunken form as a nightmare god, to grasp his potential in the power of his imagination to manipulate spiritual forces and dreams. With her skill at changing bodies by manipulating sex, emotions and power and his at mentally conceiving the man he could become, they reshape Shigidi into a truly beautiful human form, like a work of art. But he remains a spiritual entity, capable of reshaping the clay and spirit particles his body is made of. He can harden into an impenetrable physical being or relax into a fluid form, and those skills become essential as he fights his way past one opponent after another.
He and Nneoma are always a team, yet Shigidi challenges her in the one way she has not been able to handle. As he makes clear that his love for her becomes ever stronger, can she feel real love for him or continue to see love as a dangerously costly and restrictive force among independent spiritual entities? This love story at the heart of a monster smashing heist deepens the whole experience of their adventures in spiritual space.
Talabi is especially good at visualizing and giving a tactile sense to all the elements of his story, especially the spiritual places and the passage from human to spiritual realities. When Shigidi, still the nightmare god at that point, embarks on an assignment, he speaks an incantation that suddenly produces a wind that wipes away the room he is in, plunging him into absolute darkness, an ocean of nothingness. When Aleister Crowley describes his own quest to control beings from another world, he imagines an abyss, a formless plane of churning forces filled with all possible forms that can be shaped by human magic into creatures that can create or destroy. When Olorun takes on human form to meet Nneoma and Shigidi in a hotel bar, he dresses in a way to blend in but yet his body flows with electric white spirit particles, as if there was a star burning beneath the surface of his skin. The writing never draws undue attention to itself but always serves to make more vivid and immediate the physical reality of each scene, even when it is taking place in a spiritual realm.
Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon blends so well the elements of a fast-paced thriller, the action of mighty gods fighting through different levels of reality and a powerful love story that has to shatter beliefs rooted in thousand year-old trauma. Wole Talabi has made a name for himself recently as a master of shorter works of fiction (like his novelette, A Dream of Electric Mothers) but this debut novel makes clear that the longer form only gives greater scope to his considerable talents.
My thanks to DAW and NetGalley for an advance review copy of Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon on which to base this review, consisting solely of my own opinions.