I vaguely recall reading and enjoying Daryl Gregory’s first novel, Pandemonium, back when it was published in 2008. The critics were also impressed by Gregory’s debut as it featured on at least four award shortlists including the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Awards. And yet for whatever reason I bought but never read Gregory’s second novel, The Devil’s Alphabet. The same goes for Raising Stony Mayhall (purchased but never cracked open the cover) and his novella We Are All Completely Fine, which I never got around to buying. The point being that it took this ridiculous awards shortlist project of mine to finally read a second Daryl Gregory novel, this time Afterparty. And having read it, I feel a little ashamed for not keeping up with Gregory’s work.

Set in the near future where iPhones have been replaced by smart pens and designer drugs are all the rage, Lyda is a neuroscientist who, along with a group of like-minded individuals, including her lover cum wife Mikala, design a drug that for a short period of time compels you to believe in God. The problem is that Lyda, Mikala and the others involved overdose on the drug (the reasons for which remain hazy for a good chunk of the book). As a result they all start seeing God, or a representation of God that suits them the most. In the case of Lyda, it’s the emergence of Doctor Gloria. The overdose also results in the death of Mikala, the imprisonment of the company’s tech expert, Gil, for allegedly murdering Mikala and Lyda admitting herself into a facility so she can receive treatment for Doctor Gloria who won’t go away.

While in the facility Lyda finds out about a seventeen year old girl who took a drug that allowed her to see God and then committed suicide when she no longer able to obtain the drug. Given that Lyda and the surviving designers agreed (well, mostly) never to recreate or distribute their drug, the news that it’s available and has led to the death of a girl is disturbing. So, Lyda leaves the treatment facility, with Doctor Gloria in tow, to find out who is making and disseminating the drug. When Lyda quickly realises that she and her hallucination are unprepared to deal with the seedy side of the designer drug industry, Lyda calls in help from Ollie, a woman she formed a relationship with at the treatment facility who also happens to have experience in special government operations (also known as spying). Yes, there’s quite a bit of setup, but unlike me Gregory carefully measures it out across the first quarter of the novel.

It’s fascinating to read this book straight after Echopraxia because both Peter Watts and Gregory are tilling similar ground – especially in regard to faith and free will. In fact the very issues that Watts raises in the lengthy notes at the end of his novel about autonomy seems almost cut and pasted into Afterparty. Like Watts, Lyda believes that genuine autonomy is a myth, something that annoys Ollie, who like me has a romantic view that we are responsible for our actions.

Because the designer drug, “Numinous” makes you see God, these discussions on free will dovetail into a larger conversation about faith. While Watts was possibly more even-handed around a belief in God, Gregory – or at least his main point of view character Lyda – is far more caustic, far more unwilling to accept the view that a god of any sorts exists, even though her own personal deity keeps following her around. And yet, it’s not as clear-cut as that. Gregory introduces this lovely tension as Lyda, a non-believer, both wants to be rid of Doctor Gloria and yet deliberately does not take the drugs that would do just that. In fact, when Doctor Gloria does go away – normally at times when she disagrees with Lyda’s actions – Lyda can’t help but pine for Doctor Gloria’s presence. And while it could be argued that this is the drug talking, the addiction whispering in her ear, the question that keeps cropping up is whether belief, even if it’s in a make-believe entity, is a worthwhile state of mind if it leads to happiness and contentment. It’s a question that Gregory leaves the reader to figure out for themselves.

While this exploration of faith and autonomy is a key aspect of Afterparty, Gregory’s handling of two same sex-relationships is both positive and realistic. We get some insight into how much Lyda loved Mikala, but the relationship that gets the most attention is between Lyda and Ollie. Given that both suffer from drug induced mental illnesses (another issue the book tackles) there’s a gentle progression to their relationship. They were lovers in the facility where they met, but they weren’t necessarily in love (or at least Lyda wasn’t). It’s this aspect that matures as Ollie essentially comes to Lyda’s rescue both physically and emotionally. Because the two of them are also facing a number of life threatening dangers, the relationship has its ups and downs. Overall, though, Ollie and Lyda’s love for each other shines through.

The actual plot of Afterparty is also a strength. If I’m not spending much time to discuss it it’s because I don’t want to give away too many spoilers (there’s a couple of nice reveals that on reflection should have been obvious and yet I didn’t see coming), and because the plot, while well-paced, is of less interest to me than the concepts and issues that Gregory is tussling with. So yes, the actual story is very entertaining, but it’s the themes that are the star of this very fine novel.