Review: Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, by Wole Talabi
by Rich Horton
It's a curious book, in a sense. It's been marketed to some extent as a caper novel, and indeed there is a caper, or at leat a heist, as the engine of the plot, but that's a minor part of the book, really. (And as a caper qua caper it's not that interesting.) I'd say it's much more a love story, between Shigidi, a nightmare god, and Nneoma, a succubus. But it's also a satire of corporate politics, and a critique of colonialist theft of indigenous art, and even a novel offering an afterlife of sorts for Aleister Crowley!
The story is told in multiple timelines -- the main action is set in roughly the present day (2017 or so) but there are flashbacks to the 1970s, to distant African history, to Crowley in Algeria in the first decade of the 20th Century, and more. All this is well organized -- the reader never loses their way, and the themes and plot of the book are well developed by this method.
Nneoma, as a succubus, is essentially immortal, and gains her power from taking the life force from her sexual conquests as they orgasm. Shigidi, when we first encounter him (timeline-wise) is an ugly minor god, working for a "spirit corporation", which gains its profits from prayers, and from answering prayers, by such means as gods like Shigidi killing their clients by sending nightmares to their enemies. The spirit corporation is failing, however, due largely to a loss of believers, and hence their prayers. Shigidi hates his job, and on one mission he encounters Nneoma, who is dealing with the same victim from her different angle. Nneoma spots what she calls potential in Shigidi and convinces him to quite the corporation and join her as sort of an independent. And they spend a few years jointly preying on victims much as Nneoma has for her millennia of existence.
Shigidi falls desperately in love with Nneoma, but she, though happy with his company and his lovemaking, doesn't wish to commit to true love. We eventually gather that her issue goes back to the loss of her beloved sister Lilith, far in the past, due to her sister's falling in love with another being. Meanwhile, the spirit corporation is undergoing some internal dissension, and its long absent leader Olorun decides to take a more active role. He's been working on the side with Shigidi and Nneoma, but as a crisis arrives he decides he needs the two of them to retrieve something for him from the British Museum -- the titular Brass Head of Obalufon. But that is no easy job -- and this requires them to work on both the normal side of reality, and the spirit side, and to engage some special help -- which turns out to involve Nneoma calling in a long-owed debt from Aleister Crowley.
The book bounces along engagingly, as we learn about Nneoma's history with Lilith, and about Crowley's history with Nneoma and his "afterlife", and about Olorun's corporate maneuverings, and about setting up the heist. There's plenty of cool action, and some great sex, and some really neat setpieces. And the resolution takes us in an unexpected direction. I enjoyed it.
It is a first novel, though, and I have a few caveats. One seems not uncommon for first novels -- there's a LOT here, and at times I felt there was too much -- or, perhaps, that for the novel to be about as much as it is it probably should have been longer. One thing that was never dealt with is the morality of Shigidi and Nneoma's preying on their victims -- perhaps this is a logical treatment, but, well, it bothered me. I also felt the prose was uneven -- in the most important parts -- the cool setpieces, the resolutions, some of the imagery involved in that -- it's really exciting. But a bit more work throughout would have helped -- some parts came off to me as a tad unfinished, too ready to rely on cliché. Again -- this seems like a first novel issue. I have a feeling we'll eventually see this book as a promising entrée to a significant career.
Not to end on a down note -- this is a fun book, with some interesting ideas, and I definitely recommend it.