It’s been almost a year to the day since we last spoke with Little Rock author Ayana Gray. Around this time, his debut novel, “Beasts of Prey”, the first of a pan-African sci-fi trilogy filled with magic and monsters, was published by Putnam, became a New York Times bestseller and won sparked interest from Netflix, which is developing the novel into a feature film.
And now the sequel, “Beasts of Ruin,” will be released on Tuesday.
“It’s been a lot,” Gray, 29, said earlier this month at Nexus Coffee & Creative in Little Rock. “I’m still getting used to saying this is all real.”
She will participate in a book release event and conversation with Democrat-Gazette Sunday Style editor Helaine Williams at Words-Worth Bookstore in Little Rock on Thursday.
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In “Beasts of Prey,” Gray introduced readers to Koffi and Ekon, two mismatched teenagers from different backgrounds who have formed a tentative partnership to hunt down the dreaded Shetani, a nightmarish creature terrorizing the town of Lkossa. In the process, Koffi learns of his daraja powers and Ekon, the son of a war hero, begins to doubt his destiny to become an elite warrior like his father and brother.
Gray didn’t lose momentum with her second book. “Beasts of Ruin”, like its predecessor, is filled with action and tension. There are fights, spells, chases, twists, betrayals, a villainous villain, and fantastical creatures throughout the short and punchy chapters of the novel. She weaves African myths and legends of fearsome creatures like the kongamato into her narrative, and explores the impact of discrimination and cultural erasure against the fictional darajas, who are often female and feared and shunned by society. for their powers.
“I think that in [the book] and the real world, people feel uneasy when they see women and young girls showing and embracing power,” Gray says. “I wanted to write about a girl who comes into her power and, like the kongamato, who are considered frightening and disturbing creatures, in reality are not. They’re just misunderstood.”
The new book finds Koffi trapped with other darajas by Fedu, the evil god of death, in Thornkeep, which is surrounded by the terrifying Mistwood, a sort of purgatory for trapped souls. As she plans her escape, she begins to realize that she is a much stronger daraja than she could have ever imagined. Meanwhile, Ekon has teamed up with Koffi’s grandmother, Themba, who is also a daraja, and a group of spice and herb smugglers to help him get to Thornkeep and save Koffi.
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Keeping the two main characters apart for most of the book and exposing them to other characters and situations was a risk, Gray admits, but it allows them to grow beyond just their relationship with each other. .
“I wanted to separate them because I wanted them to explore who they are as individuals and not just this couple. Often with YA [Young Adult] fantasy, you have this thing called insta-love, the idea of these two characters meeting and instantly falling in love and being willing to die for each other. Knowing that teenagers are going to read these books, I want to dig a little deeper. Can you really be in love with someone you’ve only known for a few days? Is that a really healthy way to feel about someone?”
Gray is a graduate of Fulbright College at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where she studied political science and African and African American studies. She started writing “Beasts of Prey” in 2015 and spent years polishing the story before a publisher got involved. The second book, with its timeline and expectations, presented its own set of challenges.
“It was easier and harder in different ways,” she says. “It was easier because I had established the characters and the world. It was harder because now I’m balancing different responsibilities. There’s a time constraint. I wasn’t five years old. I had less than a year to return it, and readers have expectations. I’ve set a bar and wonder, am I going to hit that bar?”
She contacted other authors to overcome the pressure of producing the second book.
“I leaned on my friends a lot. I turned in my first draft of ‘Beasts of Ruin’ and I wasn’t feeling well and I immediately texted two author friends and said ‘I’m feel bad.’ They told me that it was all just normal. People think the first book is the hardest, but sometimes the second book is the hardest.
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Netflix’s interest came even before “Beasts of Prey” was released, and Gray saw a script from Melody Cooper, who wrote for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
“It’s one of my favorite shows,” Gray said. “She saw the historical African figures referenced in ‘Beasts of Prey’ and recognized them. I felt like she really understood what I was trying to do, and she’s a black woman and I was really happy to put it in her hands. It’s been surreal.”
A release date for the third book in the trilogy has not been announced, but Gray knows her time with Koffi and Ekon and the world she built for seven years will eventually come to an end.
“I’m excited to do something that will allow me to grow and try something new,” she says. “In 2015, I was 22. I have grown and changed, as anyone would, over the past seven years.”
She will likely continue to create books for young adults, she adds.
“I would never say never, but YA is my favorite. I love that YA stories are about people finding their place in the world and figuring out who they want to be. You’re not a little kid anymore, you’re not yet adult; you’re in that in-between space that’s really emotionally charged and complicated.”