The Daughters of Men by Carole McDonnell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I enjoyed this book very much and look forward to reading the sequel. It has a haunting quality that stayed with me after I finished, and I became attached to several of the main characters, who are complex and fascinating.
The story is set in the far future, when the earth is ruled by the Nephilim, superhuman beings whose beautiful outward appearance belies their great age. As in the original reference in the Bible, we learn that they are descended from rebel angels or demons, who they refer to as their spirit fathers. But the Nephilim are anything but demonic, though their enemies refer to them as “demon-spawn”; instead they not only strive to live better lives than the humans they rule as “Overseers”, but also dream of salvation, which is available to the (flawed) humans but not to them. You get a real sense of their yearning; when they die, they experience complete desolation because they are separated from the Creator, a God who seems to have abandoned them; so they call themselves the Forsaken.
This theme of loss and regret runs strongly through the novel. The main character, Ellie, is one of the Creed, a human sect that rejects the authority of the overseers. But Ellie is alienated from fellow members of the Creed, finding them all-too-human –hypocritical and judgemental. She has won the love of one of the Princes of the Nephilim, Woden, a sweet and appealing character, who nonetheless shares certain human (male) traits like jealousy and possessiveness.
Ellie’s faith tells her to reject the Overseers as demonic, but she faces a real struggle; not only is Woden protective, kindly and intelligent; she has also fallen in love with another younger Overseer, Siddhart, who is more impulsive and sensitive than Woden. Siddhart drinks, but he does not attempt to run from pain and grief, whereas Woden and the other Nephilim erase all memory of grief and loss when their fellows die.
The story centres on Ellie, Woden, Siddhart and a fourth character: Medusa, a chimera who is descended from a human clone created long ago by arrogant scientists. Medusa is a host to innumerable parasitic worms and lives in symbiosis with them, but she has to be kept hidden because humans and even her fellow chimeras would find her appearance too horrific to sustain.
But on another level, Medusa is a human teenager; she is big-hearted, intelligent, affectionate and tactless. The Overseers are training her to be a queen of the Chimerans, one of three queens; but she has had little exposure to the outside world, or anything other than the Nephilim who tell her she is beautiful.
When she meets Siddhart, Medusa learns that not everyone will love her and that some may and will find her repugnant. Though it is a brutal shock for her, she also becomes fond of Siddhart because he tells her the truth.
The engine of the narrative is a prophecy, one of several uttered by the first of the Nephilim to die in battle. It speaks of a beloved Scarred Woman who will bring conflict and disruption to the Nephilim. But like all prophecies, the meaning is obscure – will she bring discord, or lead to reconciliation between them and the Creator? Other prophecies speak of a Beautiful One and the possibility that he will reunite the Nephilim – the Forsaken – with the Silent One, the God who seems to have abandoned the earth, and them.
Along with these prophecies, we follow the account of Woden’s love for Ellie, who is torn between human Josh and the gentle Siddhart. Woden holds over Ellie the threat of an invitation to the Balance Feast, when a number of humans are sacrificed to pay for their sins and crimes. Though Ellie has not committed any crimes, Woden invites her to the feast, together with her mother. Ellie has already attended the feast before, when Woden saved her; she acquired a scar on her face, when she was hit by a bullet that changed the shape of an old birthmark.
The sinister nature of the feast is hinted at in flashback. I felt a real tension and concern, not just for Ellie, who is not only someone striving to live a moral life in a confusing and often dystopian world, but also a complex and likeable human being; but also for Woden, who truly loves her, and for Siddhart, who is younger and more idealistic than his Prince.
There are also some memorable villains. Seti and Janar are two of the more brutal overseers, preoccupied with power and paranoid about their fellows. Janar is beautiful and charming in person, but a tyrannical ruler whose followers have fascistic tendencies. Seti is downright cruel and vindictive, particularly when Siddhart tries to sabotage his war-mongering. There is also the sneaky Creed woman Tamara, to whom Ellie gives safe harbour, and who proves duplicitous. And the sinister Pseudes, the only one of the Nephilim who is wholly demonic.
I was gripped by the book right to the end. The only quibble I have is that the passages leading up to the end felt a bit rushed. The ending gave me a tremendous shock, because the outcome was not what I had expected. I can’t say what happened, because spoilers, but it was one of those moments when the author kills off someone you hoped would live to fight another day.
I started listening to this on Audible, via a giveaway with no obligation from the author, and then got so caught up in it that I went and got the book on Kindle. The Audible edition is impressive, and the narrator does justice to the book, giving the different characters distinctive voices and making it crystal clear when they are using telepathy. The Audible version also showcases the author’s prose, which is sinewy and poetic.
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The Daughters of Men by Carole McDonnell