A seven-hundred-page book is, necessarily, about a lot of things. Goddess of Limbo signposts its fundamental mission statement from the very beginning: it’s a story about putting the pieces of one’s self back together in the aftermath of trauma. Literally, in the case of the goddess Alames. Before time began, her soul shattered into splinters when she witnessed her lover, Balthos, turning to evil (destroying their own creators to make a bunch of new gods that play cruel games with mortals and owe fealty to Balthos). Now, the mortal world is divided. The souls of mortals cannot reliably pass on to the ethereal realm. Instead, many of them splinter at the moment of death and end up in limbo, fractions of the selves they were in life, or even transformed into creatures of evil.
In this fractured world of borders and unkind gods, an assortment of mortals struggles to find meaning in their own traumas. Physicist princess Ally hopes to bring enlightenment and prosperity to the people of the kingdom of Virisunder, all while fighting against her cruel husband, a hostile and skeptical Council, and the voices in her own mind that assure her she’s doomed to failure. A widowed father strikes a bargain with a Fae demon of uncertain intentions to ensure that he will always be able to provide for his son, Pier. A political musician struggles to understand her sexuality and avenge the senseless death of her bandmate. And five close friends graduate from their university into a real world that refuses to see them for who they truly are.
To one degree or another, every one of these characters is trying to discover who they are in the aftermath of cataclysmic events: abuse in some cases, traumatic loss in others, all representing dramatic alterations to the paths they believed they were walking. Aligning herself with a refreshing trend that includes authors like Tasha Suri and Shelley Parker-Chan, Falls is writing against the epic fantasy traditions that restrict their sphere of interest to Extremely Special Cis Men. Her characters are queer, polyamorous, trans, disabled, nonbinary, all fighting for their place in a world that cannot be relied upon to accommodate or even acknowledge them.
Goddess of Limbo’s greatest strength is its author’s obvious care and respect for her characters in their diverse range of identities and experiences. Other characters and the structures of this fictional society might disregard and dismiss trauma, queerness, or dissent, but the book itself never does. The long-ago miracle that allowed nonbinary orc Gon to survive infancy was not, and was not expected to be, a cure for their cerebral palsy. Gon walks with the aid of crutches, and more than one scene makes note of the accessibility or otherwise of a given location. Similarly, Ally’s new flame, a sniper called Robert, struggles to accept that Ally remains romantically and sexually involved with her longtime lover, Bored Reginald; but the narrative itself—and eventually the arc of the plot—clearly acknowledges the validity of Ally’s polyamorous identity and desire.
A notable exception to this is the book’s handling of race. Falls rarely grapples with racism to any depth, whether the type of racism that maps neatly onto real-world prejudice or the fantasy racism that arises in a world with human, orc, and elf characters. Occasional slurs aimed at orcs and elves are thrown around, but they feel more like set dressing than meaningful world-building. The book also nods at anti-Black racism specifically, but fails to engage with it in a sustained or significant way. Subira Se’azana, an elf general from Fi’Teri, eats foods like shiro wat and injera, and occasionally ruminates on the prejudice she faces for having dark skin, but with few other indications that the countries in Goddess of Limbo are intended as analogs for countries in the real world, or that skin color is an axis for oppression in this world, it’s unclear what the reader is supposed to make of these scattered references to Blackness and anti-Blackness.
The lack of context for the characters’ beliefs and choices extends beyond questions of race and identity. Although Goddess of Limbo clocks in at nearly seven hundred pages, it rarely dedicates the space to articulating why any of what’s happening matters to the characters. If this book were a musical, every character’s “I want” song could be summed up simply as “not this.” Ally wants not to be married; Richard wants not to be starving to death; Vana wants not to be subject to the callous, murderous whims of the nobility; Sachihiro wants not to become chieftain. Even when a character seems to have a clear goal in mind—Pier wants to expand his father’s smithy; Ally wants, I guess, progress—it’s unclear why the goal matters to that character, or how their life might be different once it’s attained. By focusing primarily on what the characters don’t want, the book sacrifices the propulsive force that would have come from focusing on what they do want.
Further muddying the waters is the lack of emotional or, very often, material consequences for many of the events that occur. Cataclysmic changes befall our point-of-view characters throughout the book, but it’s rarely clear what—if anything—has actually changed for them. At one point, siblings Gon and Sachihiro return to their home in Tribu La’am, to enable Gon to marry their elf fiancée, Zazil, and be named chieftain of their tribe. Zazil is prepared to face some resistance from Gon’s orc family, but she’s not prepared for a volcano to erupt in the middle of the ceremony, apparently swallowing up both Gon and Sachihiro.
Gon and Sachihiro are immediately unswallowed by the volcano, thanks to orcish magic and Zazil’s quickness, but the volcano is such a terrible omen that Gon—the younger sibling—can no longer become chieftain. Instead, Sachihiro has to do it, ruining his plans to become a scholar at the university and his relationship with Esperanza, who doesn’t want to be a chieftain’s wife. He enters into an arranged marriage with a fellow orc, which immediately falls apart when she finds out that he doesn’t want to sleep with her, make baby orcs, or lead the tribe at all. Gon and Zazil and Sachihiro then all get army jobs, which they seem fine with. The whole thing occupies a good chunk of the book’s middle, and at no point was it possible to discern what the stakes of these events were or what consequences they would have for the characters.
This is due in large part due to Falls’s tendency to cut away from a point-of-view character in the immediate aftermath of an emotional climax, returning to that character’s perspective only after the dust has settled and they’ve achieved a new normal. Subira presents an extreme example of this: her early chapters position her as a general of some importance, but after a mission whose military and diplomatic importance we don’t yet have the context to grasp, she drastically changes the course of her life and disappears as a point-of-view character for twenty-three chapters (a little over half the book). Like many of the book’s characters, Subira is separated by distance and circumstance from our other protagonists—a problem common in epic fantasy that Falls doesn’t manage to overcome here—leaving little space for her to discuss, on-page, what she’s been through and what she plans to do about it.
A great deal of heavy lifting is required of the first book in an epic fantasy series, and the unfortunate fact is that Goddess of Limbo places much of that weight on its readers. Crucial story elements go under- or unexplained, while the connections among characters’ life events, motivations, and choices are fuzzy at best. Falls always seems eager to move on to the next plot goalpost, but without laying the emotional groundwork to help readers understand why we should care about getting there. The result is a book about trauma that ultimately fails to grapple either with the breakages (of identity, of self, of life trajectory) that arise from traumatic events or the process of reassemblage in their aftermath.