Godly Heathens follows nonbinary teen Gem Echols, who is living in rural Gracie, Ga., and discovers from new arrival Willa Mae that neither of them is human. In past lives, Gem was a powerful god known as the Magician, and the only one who knows where an ancient weapon that can return all of the gods trapped on Earth back to their home, the Ether, is hidden. However, Gem has made many enemies in their past lives, and as they struggle to regain their memories and their magic, they must fend off gods seeking vengeance while trying to keep their loved ones safe. The novel marks H.E. Edgmon’s second fantasy duology following The Witch King series. We spoke with Edgmon about wading into the waters of murky morality and depicting different forms of duality.
Your dedication for Godly Heathens is to “Anyone who fears they may be the villain in their own story,” which fits for the story’s protagonist Gem, who could be considered a villain to many. Why did you want to write about shades of gray in morality?
I think that for myself, and for a lot of other queer people I know who grew up in environments similar to the one that Gem has grown up with—in rural areas and in places where they don’t necessarily feel like they can fully be themselves—it can create a lot of built-up resentment and anger. And there’s a lot of trauma responses that can come off as ugly. I know that I spent a lot of time in my adulthood unlearning that and having to find my way back to a place where I could be soft and vulnerable with people, because you put up a very hard exterior that is spiky and mean to protect yourself. I wanted to write a story about someone who doesn’t just think that they might be a villain but who, depending on which point of view you’re watching the story from, is a villain. And [I wanted to] say, okay, yeah, but you still deserve to be safe and happy. You still deserve to be taken care of no matter the bad the things that you’ve done or the mistakes that you’ve made. You can still come back from those things. Because I think that’s important for a lot of different people to hear. In particular, I was thinking about queer people, but I think that it touches on a lot of different people.
How were you first introduced to fantasy?
When I was a kid, I used to sit on the kitchen floor and watch my dad play D&D with his friends. I didn’t spend a lot of time with my dad; we didn't live together. But those were my sharpest and fondest memories of what it meant to be around him. I became so enamored with D&D, I would take the character building sheets, and I would come up with my own characters in my notebooks. That started when I was maybe six or seven. And it never stopped from there. I continued to journal little character biographies in every notebook that I had through elementary school, middle school, and high school. Eventually that turned into taking those characters and building worlds around them.
Gem and their mother have a fraught relationship that is best encapsulated when Gem’s mother says, “I don’t hate you. I hate what you are.” Can you speak a bit about how one cannot always be separated from their identities?
It’s like, “Don’t hate the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s all wrapped up in this ideology that people are somehow totally separate from the things that they do, or the things that they feel. But human beings are just a collection of the things that we do—a collection of our thoughts and feelings—and there isn’t actually [a way of] loving someone, while hating everything that they represent. But I feel like it is something that people will say often, and it is something that kids—especially kids who are queer or those who are struggling with mental health, or whose identities are different from the people who are raising—them hear a lot. It is something that we can internalize, that we are loved, but there is something wrong with everything that we are doing. And I would just like to offer a counter to that, which is actually, that’s messed up. Don’t buy into that.
As a god, Gem’s fate is to be with their soulmate Willa Mae, but as a human they have found a different relationship with Enzo, which they choose to continue. How do Willa Mae and Enzo represent Gem’s choice between fate and free will? And why was it important for Gem not be forced to decide between the relationships?
Duality is a huge theme in Godly Heathens. Gem is really representative of walking between two worlds. They very literally come from a different world, and also, they are a teenager who lives in Georgia. Their gender exists somewhere in the middle of this spectrum between two sides. They are both white and Native, and they feel stuck in the middle between those two parts of themselves. And even their place within the Pantheon is keeping this balance and holding different sides level with each other. That extends into their love life and the feelings that they have for these two characters. And it wasn’t just that it was part of this greater theme, but it also continues the thread of it. Where they came from and where they are going are both important. And both are true and real. You don’t have to abandon one part of yourself or another part of yourself; you can find out how to navigate both.
Godly Heathens (The Ouroboros #1) by H.E. Edgmon. Wednesday, $20 Nov. 28 ISBN 978-1-250-85361-5