Review: The Hollow Gods (The Chaos Cycle #1) by A. J. Vrana

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Lately, I can’t stop looking for the unknown in storytelling. The unknown as twofold: as it relates to the plot (the spiritual, the mysterious, the concealed within a cloak of secrets, the supernatural) and as it relates to how a story is told (unreliable narrators, dreams, liminal space, deviating from the expected form). It is invigorating exploring that which lit a fire of passion for reading within me, a love that caused me to study literature and to focus on Postmodern lit specifically. But it is also exciting to see that type of exploration and experimentation that invigorates genres that have maintained their own formula—like that of fantasy. 

A. J. Vrana’s iridescent debut, THE HOLLOW GODS, is the first volume in a series called The Chaos Cycle. A story weaving folklore, dreams, the complicated histories contained within families, and the demons that communities carry with them. It is a speculative novel that defies classification in just one genre: it is magical realism, it is literary, it touches upon fantasy, it gives us a glimpse at real horror.

The Hollow Gods is a story that follows three narrators: Miya, a floundering university student, let down by the institutions to which she had clung and who now faces the prospect of being the next victim of a legend that has plagued the town of Black Hollow. Kai, a dangerous and haunted young man, struggling to make sense of the death surrounding him and his fight to hold on to himself and his memory. And Mason, an Oncologist struggling to create meaning for the loss of a patient by debunking and rationalizing Black Hollow’s obsession with the Dreamwalker and the town’s dark past. We follow Miya as she experiences some truly horrifying dreams that blend with her reality as she tries to navigate what is happening to her and get to the bottom of the legend of The Dreamwalker. Kai is struggling against his own demons, trying to survive, when he and Miya come together and find solace in each other—their narratives becoming intertwined. Undergirding their journey is Mason, giving us the necessary history and circumstances to create a full picture of the town of Black Hollow, and elevating it to a character in its own right. 

I am absolutely in love with innovative story structures, and I was entranced by this setup—in addition to sustaining that “but how did they get here” tension, the story swapping makes for exciting and snappy storytelling that propelled me through at a voracious speed. Beyond pacing, however, it also lends to a delicious ambiguity—a revealing of information that at once feels integral, but is also still mysterious. Storytelling like this reminds us that sometimes it is essential to not have all of the information and that the mystery of folklore is grounded in humanity itself—the most unexplainable of phenomena. 

Perhaps what I appreciated most about this book is how it addresses themes that are genuinely relevant to understanding our own lives and history. It is a contemporary setting, but beyond time-period, it explores folklore as it relates to how we as people and societies rationalize our existence through the supernatural, and how that rationalization become the stories that we tell ourselves, and, perhaps most importantly, how those stories become a reality.

I loved reading this book. I loved the characters within it. I can’t wait to further immerse myself in this enthralling world with the people that I have grown to love.

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