We Are the Crisis is the sequel to Cadwell Turnbull’s award-winning book No Gods, No Monsters, and, like its predecessor, it’s a book that blends profound ideas about society, communities, social justice, and the nature of the cosmos itself, with magic, monsters, and multiverse-shenanigans. But before I get into the thick of my review, I want to emphasize three things up front:
- The first line of this novel is “Start with the wolves,” and if you’re a fan of werewolves, you should know that this book is a gift.
- There is an epic, all-out vampire vs werewolf fight early on that you do not want to miss if you love monster battles.
- Some of the most riveting scenes involve magical, mechanical ants opening teleportation portals and I think that’s beautiful.
With this vital information out of the way, let’s get to it:
We Are the Crisis is book two in Turnbull’s Convergence Saga. In the first book, humans found out that real, bona fide monsters—the stuff of fairytale, myth, and movies—have been living among them for millennia, a revelation that caused major turmoil for monsters and humans alike. We Are the Crisis picks up the story three years after the violent events at the end of the first book and we find ourselves in a world marked by conflict, uncertainty, and change. Monsters are disappearing or turning up dead. Pro-monster supporters are clashing with the anti-monster group the Black Hand, and while some are looking for ways in which monsters and humans can live together, others are preparing for, or openly fomenting, war.
It all makes for a rich tapestry of a book with several interwoven story threads to follow, and Turnbull keeps you hooked and tethered by zooming in close on the lives of the characters, making us see and experience each complex and intricate part of the pattern through their lives and eyes.
There are many outstanding characters in this book, but as a werewolf fan, I have a special place in my heart for the small, bookstore-running wolfpack of Ridley, Laina, and Rebecca. The way Turnbull captures the trio’s everyday struggles to find a way to live in a world full of frightened humans, and the way he sketches the intimate details of their bond and abilities (as well as their sometimes-fraught relationships with each other and the people around them) is at the heart of this book for me.
The werewolf pack is also at the center of that spectacular werewolf vs vampire fight I mentioned earlier. That clash is riveting and brutal, and also sets up intriguing new mysteries about the origin of the werewolves, and about who is hunting down Rebecca’s old, and new, pack members.
Dragon, the shapeshifting child used and abused by the organization known as the Black Hand in the first book, is another one of my favorite characters. After years of captivity he is now free and desperately longs for a place to belong, a place where he can feel safe, and a way to be good rather than terrifying. None of this is easily attainable though, because Dragon is part of the conflict between two powerful and ancient secret societies that have been battling each other in the shadows for a very long time.
We Are the Crisis contains some mind-bending reveals about the history, power, and purpose of these secret societies, and Turnbull handles these reveals with a masterful blend of straight-up horror and deadpan black humor. For example, the scene when we, through Ridley, find out the names and history of these secret societies, is a brilliant piece of writing where a densely packed information dump is leavened by Ridley’s incredulous response, “I don’t know what any of that means.”
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One of the book’s most harrowing and haunting storylines is linked to these secret societies. It plays out partly in the 1940s and involves real-life occultist and self-proclaimed magician Aleister Crowley. In Turnbull’s hands, crucial scenes are delivered as a beautifully folded, intricately crafted piece of origami-like storytelling. It’s told as a flashback where someone is telling the story of how Crowley told them a story told to him by someone else. It’s a narrative device that simultaneously allows for both closeness and distance as we see Crowley tell a spellbound crowd at a party how to make a monster: “First, get a child. Any child will do, but it must be incredibly young, preferably preverbal. — Take a suitably young child and lock it away.”
Cameron, the woman relating this story many years later (she’s another one of my favorite characters in this book), talks about “the darkness waiting just outside the light” as Crowley speaks. And yes, of course someone tries to do what Crowley suggests. This leads to one of the most devastating parts of the book where acts of dreadful cruelty attract the attention of entities so far beyond human understanding that they can only be called gods.
Beyond these dark tales, intricate plots, and multifarious characters, one of the things that sets We Are the Crisis (and No Gods, No Monsters) apart, is Turnbull’s choice of narrator and point of view. These choices are not just stylistic, but integral to the story itself, and to the multiverse aspect of Turnbull’s universe(s). On the surface, both We Are the Crisis and No Gods, No Monsters are written as if there is an omniscient, impersonal narrator. But as the reader soon finds out, the narrator might be omniscient, but they are also a person named Calvin who turns out to be part of the story they’re telling. All this has major repercussions in We Are the Crisis and sets up one hell of an ending.
One of the many things I love about We Are the Crisis is Turnbull’s focus not just on cruel rituals (Aleister Crowley!), cool magic (mechanical ants opening portals!) and monster fights (vampires vs werewolves!), but on characters trying to find new and better ways to live together, to create a world and a society that is more equitable and just. Yes, this is social justice writ large into a story about monsters, but it’s much more than metaphor or sideshow. It’s the very heart and soul of the story. Is it possible for people and monsters to trust each other, to care for each other, to live together? The struggle with these questions is exemplified by several characters in the story, including the werewolves Ridley, Rebecca, and Laina who are trying to find a way past the rampant fear and mistrust between humans and monsters, “to find places to live together, work together, build together the world that they wanted. A world where monsters and humans might coexist.”
Turnbull isn’t just putting these questions out there. He is intimately concerned with the creation, maintenance, and inner workings—good, bad, and complicated—of family (found and biological), organizations, and communities large and small. In We Are the Crisis, the struggle to build something better is as much a part of the story as the violent confrontations and fights between good guys and bad guys. Again and again, the focus returns to characters striving toward coexistence and cooperation rather than confrontation and war, trying to find better ways of living together, even when it seems almost impossible. “How do you fight against the inevitable, the conflict already happening? What’s the point of drawing people to them if there is no way out of the coming war?”
It’s a question that resonates in this book as it does in the world we live in.
With No Gods, No Monsters, Turnbull set the bar pretty high for the sequel, and my expectations were similarly high. When I received an early advance reading copy of We Are the Crisis this past summer, I tore through it in two days. Once I was done, the first thing I did was to read No Gods, No Monsters again. And perhaps that is the best review I can give this book, and this book series.