Two Black teenagers from vastly different backgrounds have entered a terrifying jungle, tracking a ghastly monster that has terrorized the city of Lkossa for years.
Koffi is after the deadly Shetani in an effort to free herself from a life of indenture to Baaz, the mean, greedhead owner of the Night Zoo, while the bookish, obsessive-compulsive Ekon is hoping to prove his worth as a warrior and avenge his father's death by slaying the monster.
They have formed an uneasy alliance that will evolve into something much stronger as they hunt the Shetani — "demon" in Swahili. Along the way, tough, no-nonsense Koffi learns that she has magical powers that are far beyond her understanding and Ekon discovers that his destiny as an elite warrior has become more complicated.
They may also be growing a little sweet on each other.
Welcome to "Beasts of Prey," the fast-paced, gripping young-adult debut novel from 28-year-old Little Rock author Ayana Gray. Available on Tuesday, it's the first of a trilogy and is published by Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
It's a big deal. Advance copies have a blurb from O, the Oprah Magazine; there are interviews lined up with big-time national outlets and a planned hybrid book tour of in-person and virtual events.
It's also hard to put down.
"Beasts of Prey" is loaded with compelling characters, mythical animals, magic, mysticism, gods, goddesses, darkness and light. Gray deftly infuses her pan-African fantasy adventure with nods to political figures, settings and folktales from across the continent. The novel's pacing is expertly crafted via short, exciting, punchy chapters, and the author knows just how much to reveal about her characters and their predicaments without giving too much away.
"I got it last summer and read it right away and was just bowled over by it," says Stacey N. Barney, Gray's editor and associate publisher at Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books. "It's accessible writing and a great storyline. I could tell that she had done her research, that she had delved deeply into pan-African culture, heritage and history and it was all beautifully laid out on the page."
It's one of those July afternoons when being outside feels like walking around in an oven.
Gray, a self-professed fan of summer, looks perfectly cool inside Nexus Coffee and Creative in Little Rock's River Market District. She is here talking about her writing life and the coming publication of the book she has been working on since May 2015.
"It's still weird in a really good way," she says. "It was just a document on my computer for such a long time, and now it's a book in people's hands. I'm still processing that."
Her parents, Rhonda and Russ Gray, are both New Yorkers who met while attending college in Atlanta. Gray, who was born in Atlanta and lived there until she was 13, has two younger siblings — brother Corey and sister Ashley.
She says she started writing "as soon as I could. I loved to draw. When I was little I would make illustrated books, but no one would understand what was going on, so I added words and then I just started to write."
"Charlotte's Web" was the first chapter book she remembers reading; later came Beverly Cleary's "Ramona" series, Brian Jacques' "Redwall" books, C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series, the "Harry Potter" novels, "Twilight," "Maze Runner," "Hunger Games."
She found solace in these fantastical worlds of wizards, heroes and villains.
"I moved around a lot when I was a kid," she says. "Between fourth and eighth grades, I was the new kid every year. I found friends, but it's brutal. On top of that, sometimes, you deal with racism, whether it's overt or the passive-aggressive kind. Fantasy was a place to escape to. It was a place where race didn't usually matter; people just got to be magical. They didn't often look like me, but I didn't care."
The family moved to Little Rock in 2006 and Gray attended Pulaski Academy.
"She was a really special student," says Bill Topich, chairman of the school's department of social science, who taught Gray from 2009-2011. "She is a gifted writer. She has a lethal combination: she's extremely intelligent and she has the work ethic. If you told me a decade ago that she would have a career as an author I would not have been in the least bit surprised."
Topich, who is still close with Gray, recalls a research paper she wrote as a junior on female infanticide in India and China. It was published in The Concord Review, the prestigious academic journal. "The editor of that journal considers her paper one of the finest they've ever published," he says.
Gray's original research paper is pinned to a cork board in one of the classrooms at the school, Topich adds, as an example of what students should aspire to in their own research papers.
Gray studied political science and African and African-American studies at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Not long after graduating she worked as a nanny for a year in Australia, living in Sydney and Brisbane.
Her husband, Dan, is from Down Under. They've been married for two years.
"I just always wanted to go there," she says. "["Crocodile Hunter" host] Steve Irwin was one of my heroes. I had my own money and I had a plan — I'm a real planner — so my parents weren't worried."
Gray returned to Arkansas and worked at a North Little Rock gym for a bit, though she admits "I'm not a gym person," then took a job in "prospect research" — a fancy term for finding potential donors — at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Through it all, she was working on what would become "Beasts of Prey."
"I graduated from college and was like, great, now what do I do," she says. "I have a lot of high-achieving friends who were getting into master's programs, going abroad, going to law school, medical school. I had gone to school wanting to be a lawyer, but halfway through I decided that wasn't what I wanted to do, so I buried myself in writing. That was a thing that I knew."
"Beasts of Prey" is influenced in part by what Gray learned in a highly selective, intense class on political violence and held every other year at UA by Professor Jeff Ryan that sounds a bit like something out of Donna Tartt's novel "The Secret History," minus the ancient Greek bits and murderous Bacchanal.
"We would meet once a week for three hours and we were talking about political violence, terrorism, really heavy stuff," she says. "Dr. Ryan is a genius. We all came in with our convictions and beliefs and he would say, well, have you thought about it from this perspective? He challenged my ideas of good and evil and that was always in my head when writing 'Beasts of Prey.'"
A month she spent during her senior year on a study-abroad trip to culturally rich Ghana in western Africa also made an impact.
"Getting to see Black people on billboards, where you can go into a store and there are hair-care products that are for people with my kind of hair and not just on the ethnic aisle, really got me thinking. It allowed me to imagine building a world where you can have Black kings and queens."
The idea for the bloodthirsty Shetani was inspired by the story of a pair of male lions that in 1898 attacked and killed a number of workers on the East Africa Railroad (the lions' reign of terror was the subject of the 1996 film "The Ghost and the Darkness").
"I'm an animal person," Gray says. "Male lions aren't supposed to be hunting. Everything about that was so scary and weird."
And at the heart of the book is this pair of mismatched teenagers — impetuous Koffi and methodical Ekon — who are both saddled with their own problems as they hunt a frightening, murderous creature.
"I hope people read it and learn to face their monsters," Gray says. "This is the story of two kids running from their fears, both literal and the ones in their heads. It's something I really wish I'd known at 17 because my coping mechanism was to throw myself into school. I could control my schoolwork, but I couldn't control anything else. That's not really the best because you're not dealing with what's bothering you. I hope that kids who read it learn how to face the things I feared."
There's also the fact that Gray is writing about Black characters in a young adult novel for a major publisher.
"My editor and I had lots of talks about writing this world where Black kids felt seen, but also not pandering to the white gaze," she says. "That is something I think Black creators are sometimes pressured into doing. I wanted everyone to be Black, to have my skin tone. A lot of times, we see Blackness is acceptable when it's tweaked, when it's light-skinned. I wanted to attack that. I want a young Black boy to pick it up and say, 'I kind of look like that.'"
She recalls an experience of reading a young adult novel that had a lone Black female character.
"I love the book, love the author, but this character, she's the comic relief. The way she speaks, her jokes are about fried chicken. I remember wanting to connect with her so badly because she was the only one, but I just couldn't. I never want a reader to feel that way. I want to make sure the Black kids who read ["Beasts of Prey"] feel good about their representation in the story."
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There are plenty of novels that don't make it past the first few pages, or that live forever in that desktop folder, seen by no one but their creator. Novel writing is a marathon and not for the gentle of heart or the easily discouraged.
It was while she was living in Gainesville that Gray found an online writing community that helped her to continue writing.
"That was how I finished it," she says. "Up until then, I'd never gotten through a [complete] draft. I had a job I could leave at my desk and I would come home, have a quick dinner and write all night. I didn't have a dog; Dan was overseas. It was just me."
In April 2019, she pitched the book through #DVPIT, a Twitter event created to showcase ideas from voices "that have been historically underrepresented in publishing," according to its website.
She cleverly described the book as "Black Arya Stark [from 'Game of Thrones'] meets 'King of Scars'" [the fantasy novel by Leigh Bardugo].
She was taken on by agent Pete Knapp, who worked with her closely for months to edit the manuscript before sending it to potential publishers. Putnam quickly picked it up in July 2020.
"Ayana is very intelligent and intuitive and has great instincts," Barney says. "She knows why she is here and what she wants her impact on this industry to be. I've really enjoyed working with her and helping her find her way. You don't see talent like this every day."
Gray and Barney are working on the edits for the second book, which will be out next year. Meanwhile, she is promoting "Beasts of Prey" and pulling together the outline for the third book when she's not caring for Dolly, her and Dan's F1B mini goldendoodle.
"She's just a very gentle soul," Gray says. "I've wanted a dog for the longest time, but I wanted to make sure the time was right. I told you, I'm a planner. She's changed my routine, but it's been good. I just have to kind of write around her."
Gray will be at WordsWorth Books in Little Rock from 6:30-8 p.m Friday to speak about "Beasts of Prey" and sign copies. At 5:30 p.m. Oct. 27, she will present a lecture as part of the University of Arkansas Fayetteville's Honors College Mic lecture series at Gearhart Hall Auditorium (see arkansasonline.com/926ayanagray/ for details). She will also take part in Central Arkansas Library System's online Six Bridges Book Festival, Oct. 21-31. See cals.org for information.