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Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon coverWole Talabi’s debut novel is a relentlessly and uproariously fun caper wherein Shigidi, a low-level nightmare god, and Nneoma, his rogue succubus partner, escape the trenches of corporate capitalism, sweep across spirit worlds and multiple continents, and pull off a near-impossible heist at the British Museum. Opening with a frenetic car chase and a heartfelt confession of love, Talabi carefully structures his supernatural thriller with strategically placed flashbacks that fill in the readers on the character backstories and explicate the neocolonialist ethos that plagues mortals and immortals alike—all while peppering the narrative with frequent sex, and ratcheting up the tension for the high-stakes robbery that unfolds near the end. The result is that Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon is an unabashedly erotic and page-turning tale, blending the urban and the mythic in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s works, yet fizzing with a kinetic energy which, at least within the genre of contemporary adult fantasy, feels utterly refreshing and gloriously entertaining.

In this fantastical novel, the world of the gods mirrors our own. The Orisha Spirit Company, where Shigidi is a minor employee, is a corrupt corporate enterprise relying on the dwindling faith of its few believers, slowly falling into decay and irrelevance as religious systems change and newer threats such as Nollywood emerge. Initially, Shigidi is a disgruntled god of no consequence, struggling with self-loathing and severe self-image issues and doling out petty nightmares to kill certain targets, while the lion’s share of the profits that accrue from his work are enjoyed by his boss Shango—and Shango’s wives. So, while Shigidi might be a deity imbued with terrifying superpowers, he is actually quite powerless and chained to an exploitative system without any hopes or ambitions for the future. All this changes when one of his operations is botched by an encounter with Nneoma, an alluring succubus and free agent who invites Shigidi to quit his dead-end job and join forces with her, in exchange for a more attractive body and a chance to be his own person.

Nneoma’s pro-freelancing pitch is, quite literally, seductive—offering a way to resist capitalism, particularly the corporatized ownership of one’s time and autonomy that a strict 9-to-5 occupation typically involves. Of course, in very short order Shigidi is hopelessly infatuated—both with Nneoma and the lifestyle she represents—but he still has some inhibitions. Indeed, the sheer sense of independence might seem exhilarating at first, but ask any freelancer fucked over by tax treaties and an unfair employment market: the lack of job security really isn’t fun. Shigidi and Nneoma have the freedom to travel the world and remake their bodies, but each mission, no matter how well paid, gets increasingly dangerous.

As skilled free agents on the run from certain Yoruba deities, they are rather expendable and consequently hired to retrieve an artefact from the largest and perhaps the most notoriously overprotected dragon’s hoard in existence—the British Museum. This is the point at which you really shouldn’t take the anti-capitalist overtones of the novel at face value: freelancing isn’t fun at all, as this hazardous heist reveals. While godly powers can bypass normal security measures such as locked doors and CCTV cameras, Talabi ingeniously crafts a new set of supernatural challenges for our protagonists. One of these obstacles requires the assistance of a magician, and who better to ask for help than Aleister Crowley, the infamous occultist of the last century with whom (of course) Nneoma has a history? Much to Shigidi’s jealousy and chagrin, Nneoma enlists Aleister’s help—who is, in a very The Vampire Lestat (1985) twist, now reincarnated in the youthful body of a rock musician—and he even agrees to be their getaway driver. Nevertheless, this is a mission that could literally kill them.

The more corporate Yoruba gods are, like the people of color who are frequently denied visas on illogical grounds, also subject to bureaucratic racism and cannot move across the borders of the U.K. freely. This, of course, is another way Talabi hints at the nefariously racist politics of border control: in similar vein, we also see how expendable and stealthily-moving freelancers become the best fit for a job in an exploitative system. Thus, while the premise and plot of Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon seem deceptively simple, Talabi’s lucid narration hints at a lot more going on behind the scenes. This includes a scheme to take over and overhaul the Orisha Spirit Company. There’s plenty of sex and fighting going on, too—and, while the dubious consent in the erotic scenes might not sit comfortably with all readers, the action scenes are meticulously choreographed and a delight to read. The novel’s flashbacks also give us a better understanding of Nneoma, who is both ridiculously overpowered and tremendously lonely. Having been abandoned before (by her beloved sister, Lilith, who chose a man over her sibling), Nneoma clearly has commitment issues and is fiercely protective of her independence.

Nevertheless, the figure of Nneoma, despite all her badassery, didn’t really strike me—much like most contemporary superheroines—as empowering. She’s a succubus, yes, and while the femme fatale trope is sometimes subverted here, the way she weaponizes her nubile looks to control gods and men by sexual coercion—while also being vulnerable enough to settle for Shigidi—seems to me a product of a male power fantasy. [1] Despite having a complicated past, she exists in the plot primarily as a conduit for Shigidi’s transformation from an “ugly and small” nightmare god to a beautiful deity. Even the partnership she offers seems to benefit Shigidi more than her. Indeed, it appears that relationships between gods, as well as with mortal magicians, are coolly and logically structured by exacting bargains and promises—an arrangement overturned in the end by the acceptance and triumph of love. But, given how Shigidi performs his “nightmare and kill” jobs without much compunction, or how Nneoma—sometimes for survival and sometimes for selfish pleasure—sexually coerces terrified mortals to untimely ends, I wish that the book had a chapter discussing the dissimilar set of ethical and moral principles (or lack thereof) active among gods.

Likewise, Shigidi’s struggles with his self-image (it’s hinted that he’s a virgin on account of his ugliness)—and the fact that a changed, handsome body gives him a confidence boost and decreases his self-loathing—sits a little uneasily with me, as such cosmetic procedures seem to uphold the very patriarchal beauty standards that affect all genders, and in which certain bodies (particularly disabled ones) are perceived as being undesirable. [2] Of course, given that Shigidi’s “creation and recruitment” were “non-negotiable parameters” of his contract, one can interpret his refashioning on a symbolic level to signify his new, revitalizing freedom from the soul-sucking corporate hegemony. My discomfort stems, though, from the fact that his refashioning by Nneoma wasn’t symbolic at all, but a clearly stated physical one. In fact, it is this elusive possibility—that one can remake one’s physical body to attain an ideal form—that perpetuates such impossible beauty standards in the first place, allowing the beauty industry to thrive by preying on people’s insecurities.

This isn’t to detract from the novel’s several other enjoyable and fascinating aspects. The worldbuilding, in particular, reminded me of the way gods, mortals, and spirits intermingled with each other in Gaiman’s The Sandman (1989-1996) and American Gods (2001). [3] But Talabi reinvents the Yoruba pantheon, as well as other deities from world myths, with a fresh twist—the gods not only rely on the faith of humans for their existence and evolution, but they are also chained by human systems of oppression, and must find crafty, inventive ways to break free. While the main focus is on the orishas, deities and creatures from other cultures and legends also make appearances, such as Murugan from the Hindu mythos or the two guardian giants Gog and Magog from the Abrahamic corpus; even “Hagall”—an ancient rune signaling hail and disruption—is creatively repurposed as a security alarm in the British Museum. It is these minute elements, and Talabi’s overall attention to detail, that makes the novel come so alive in the reader’s imagination.

Talabi’s debut novel is a memorable one that operates on many levels—a heist thriller, an action-adventure tale, an erotic romance, an examination of the colonial fallout and its insidious transformation to multinational capitalism, and a story of self-improvement and fulfilling one’s true potential. In this, it showcases the author’s confidence in his ability to craft a compelling narrative while juggling various genre elements. Overall, Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon is an entertaining read that, despite straddling some heavy anti-capitalist themes, manages to maintain a blithe tone throughout. It is comparable to other recent delight-focused books, such as Valerie Valdes’ Chilling Effect (2019) or S. Jae-Jones’s Zhara: Guardians of Dawn (2023), but more firmly oriented towards an adult audience. While I wish the character arcs and relationship between the two main protagonists had been handled with more nuance and moved beyond replicating stereotypes, I’m still curious to read more of whatever Talabi publishes next.

Endnotes

[1] For the longest while, and even though she enjoys Shigidi’s company, Nneoma isn’t sure about returning Shigidi’s romantic affections. I, too, felt that Nneoma deserves way better … but what to do? Even among gods, it seems that good guys are sadly in short supply—and Shigidi does manage to work on his issues through the events of this novel. Indeed, he proves his worth by literally undergoing a self-transformation. Despite all the hijinks and near-death experiences, the author is surprisingly kind to characters who undergo a tremendous degree of self-improvement and ultimately fall in love with each other. [return]

[2] Plus, of course, in both the mythic and the real worlds such procedures are not so readily available or accessible—Shigidi just gets lucky with Nneoma. [return]

[3] At one point, Nneoma even mentions the Endless, which seems too deliberate a reference. [return]



Archita Mittra is a writer and artist with a love for all things vintage, whimsical, and darkly fantastical. She occasionally reads tarot cards, has more hobbies than she can count, and loves blueberry milkshakes. She lives in Kolkata (India) with her family and rabbits. You can check out her blog here and say hi on Twitter/Instagram.
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