Beasts of Prey: Stong worldbuilding bogged down by a so-so romance

Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray. Image courtesy Penguin Random House
Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray. Image courtesy Penguin Random House /

Ayana Gray’s Beasts of Prey is one of the Fall’s buzziest YA fantasies and with good reason. A pan-African tale of magic, corruption, adventure, and strange creatures drenched in atmosphere and mythology, it’s a tale that’s easy to get lost in.

In the fictional jungle city of Lkossa, magic once flourished, primarily wielded by users known as darajas. But when a magical earthquake, known simply as “The Rupture” occurs, these mages are driven underground, ostracized and shunned by a society that blames them for the destruction.

Sixteen-year-old Koffi is an indentured servant at the Night Zoo, working off her deceased father’s debts by helping care for dangerous creatures. Seventeen-year-old Ekon has spent his whole life training to become one of the Sons of the Six, a band of elite warriors. The pair’s lives will become intertwined when she rescues him from a deadly magical beast known as the Shetani that’s been stalking Lkossa’s residents for years. In the aftermath, Ekon is exiled from the warrior class and Koffi finds herself facing a lifetime of servitude.

The pair decide to join forces to hunt the dangerous animal on their own, a journey that will change not just their own lives, but their understanding of the forces that forged their country and its people. A third POV that runs throughout the book, that of another daraja named Adiah, also adds crucial context and emotional heft, eventually tying in neatly to Ekon and Koffi’s stories in a neat and surprising way.

It’s easy to see why Netflix has optioned Gray’s novelBeasts of Prey is set in a rich, fascinating fantasy world, populated by intriguing people and creatures alike. The idea of the Greater Jungle, a lush setting full of a variety of disturbing creatures and maybe gods, is visually striking. And the story’s magical system – known as splendor and which involves a deliberately symbiotic relationship between the mage that wields it and the natural world around them – feels fresh and new.

The one downfall of the story, however, is the cookie-cutter enemies to something more romance at its center. That Koffi and Ekkon would end up romantically entangled was obvious from the book’s first pages, they’re perfectly matched in the way that opposites who are destined to be together often are. And here’s the thing: Normally, I’m a complete sucker for an enemies-to-lovers relationship, it’s one of my favorite tropes! But in its eagerness to make a late-book emotional beat land harder, Beasts of Prey rushes through the development of their love story, and the two go from barely tolerating one another to near kissing within what feels like a handful of pages.

But, as flaws go it’s one that’s easily overlooked – and something that will likely be less of an issue in the novel’s inevitable sequel. (Since the two will already be romantically involved at that point.) And the strength of the rest of the story more than helps balance it out, leaving a final product that feels like it could go in any direction in the next book.

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Beasts of Prey is available now.