I don’t know about you but my most unsettling nightmares usually take place in the mundane. Sure, I’ve woken up in a cold sweat with the imprint of a sharp-toothed shadow creature seared into the back of my eyelids. But the dreams that have left me in a true fright are those that resembled real life a little too well.
Of course, real life is very much a nightmarish hellscape in its own right — for reasons we’re all well aware of. So, waking up from a nightmare only to find yourself in another is a grim reality for many of us. This dichotomy between nightmare and reality is exactly what Ayana Gray plays with in her debut Beasts of Prey. It’s also one of the reasons why so many of us are recommending this YA fantasy epic with fervor.
At this point, you’ve probably heard of Beasts of Prey. At the very least, you’ve seen the cover. It’s hard to miss; it’s truly stunning. It also helps that Netflix picked up Gray’s recently released novel for a film adaptation. Beyond all the hubbub on BookTok, Bookstagram, and BookTwitter, Beasts of Prey accomplishes what few highly talked about books accomplish: it’s genuinely good.
This Pan-African fantasy has everything: nods to important Black historical figures, a compelling cast of characters well worth rooting for, and gruesome creatures that very much walked straight out of mythology and onto Gray’s beautifully written pages.
These creatures include the fearsome grootslang and biloko. They are what first drew me to Beasts of Prey, since I’m a sucker for mythological creatures with a bark and bite to be wary of. These creatures are also a facade behind which the real villains of the story lurk, a twist that sealed the deal on Beasts of Prey’s legendary status for me.
On its own, a line like “Nightmares hunt like beasts of prey” is chilling. Within the greater context of the fantasy world Gray expertly creates in Beasts of Prey, it becomes the foundation upon which a topsy-turvy, twisty-windy plot is built.
As far as nightmares go, Gray pens a new one in every chapter, bedeviling both her protagonists and readers with visceral scenes. But only the foolish would assume these are the nightmares hunting like beasts of prey throughout the pages of this novel. Gray’s main characters Koffi and Ekon arrive at the same realization, and everything they thought they knew about their city of Lkossa is upended.
Like most fictional cities, Lkossa sits on the precipice of great peril. And not just because it borders the mystical Great Jungle. Tensions are flying high as mysterious murders continue to plague the community — a community already split along the fragile lines of two people groups, both of whom are interspersed with those who fear magic (or Splendor as the world of Eshōza calls it) and those capable of wielding it.
The people in power believe a solution to Lkossa’s problems is to hunt down and eliminate the Shetani, the most feared beast in all of Eshōza. It’s on this quest Koffi and Ekon embark. But they aren’t the only ones after the Shetani, and this tension weaves a web stickier than Anatsou’s. Will they succeed? Or will the elite warriors of Lkossa, the Sons of Six, beat them to it?
I won’t give anything away. However, I will join the chorus of the book community clamoring to tell you to read Beasts of Prey. This may be Ayana Gray’s debut, but it is already without a doubt a staple in the young adult fantasy genre.
Like the best novels, there’s plenty to dissect and discuss in Beasts of Prey, as each character, creature, and creative choice is rich in meaning and reference. In fact, as a Pan-African fantasy, “much of [Beasts of Prey’s] influence and inspiration has been shaped by the very real continent of Africa. The decision not to focus on one region of Africa was a deliberate one; as a Black American woman, the reality is that I will never know exactly where my ancestors lived and thrived prior to their capture, so this story honors cultures, mythos, and folklore from across different regions of the continent,” Gray writes in her Author’s Note.
And, the worldbuilding! Not only did Gray create an easy world to fall into, but she also left so much to be explored in the subsequent books in her forthcoming series. I, for one, cannot wait to find out what happens next.
If you’re a reader who has skipped much-anticipated series in the past, I challenge you to de-hipster your thinking. Beasts of Prey should be bandwagoned by all because no one should miss out on a magical adventure like this!
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