Bookshelf: Ayana Gray strikes gold with thrilling YA fantasy series, ‘Beasts of Prey’

Ayana Gray is the author of "Beasts of Ruin."
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

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Ayana Gray is the author of "Beasts of Ruin." Courtesy of Penguin Random House

‘Beasts of Ruin,’ the second book in the trilogy, is newly published.

At age 29, Ayana Gray has already experienced the kind of success most authors will work their entire lives without achieving.

The Atlanta native, who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, celebrated the launch of her second novel, “Beasts of Ruin,” (Penguin Random House, $18.99) on July 26. It’s the sequel to her first book, “Beasts of Prey,” which debuted last year at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list and is being translated into 10 languages and being made into a feature film for Netflix.

The books are part of a fantasy trilogy for young adult readers, with the third one set to publish in 2023 or 2024.

As if all that good fortune weren’t enough, Gray managed to hook her agent with a tweet.

That’s not to discount the hard work and talent Gray poured into her books, but more on that later. For now, let’s just sit for a minute with the wonder of the Twitter pitch event. It’s been around for a decade, but it’s grown to become a crucial way for emerging young authors to connect with literary agents.

The way it works is an author writes a 280-character pitch for their book, including the designated hashtag, and tweets it on the appointed day when it will be fielded by agents who, if they’re interested, will request to see the first couple chapters of the manuscript.

The pitch event Gray participated in was #DVpit, which the website says is open to “unagented, marginalized voices who have been historically underrepresented in publishing”; the interpretation of that is left up to the author. (The next event is Aug. 1-2.)

Multiple agents responded to Gray’s pitch, she said, “and that was how it started.”

To be fair, that is a simplified version of her journey.

“People get caught up in, ‘Oh, you found your agent on Twitter,’ but it’s worth noting that ‘Beasts of Prey’ did take five years to write,” said Gray. “I started it in 2015 in college, and it did not sell until 2020. So, I try to be very transparent about how on the page it looks like it happened very quick, but it did take quite a long time before it came into fruition.”

Nevertheless, Gray has a lot of gratitude for #DVpit helping her circumvent the traditional, torturous process of finding an agent, which can be especially demoralizing for marginalized writers.

“There are people who have been told, ‘Oh, we already have one of your stories.” I have been told that, actually. Or, ‘We’re not sure if books by Black authors or queer authors or Muslim authors sell.’ There are these barriers based on prejudice that some people have experienced, and (#DVpit founder literary critic Beth Phelan) created this opportunity to create more access, and I benefited from it. Many authors have,” said Gray. “I am incredibly grateful.”

Still, it’s unlikely the path to publication would have been so smooth if Gray’s books weren’t so well-crafted and engaging. “Beasts of Prey” and “Beasts are Ruin” are riveting reads that should hold great appeal for teenage readers, especially fans of “Black Panther” and “The Hunger Games.”

The Pan-African tale centers on two teenagers, Koffi and Ekon. Koffi and her mother are beholden to the opportunistic owner of the Night Zoo, where they take care of exotic animals in exchange for a debt that is soon to be paid off. Ekon is training to follow in his father’s and brother’s footsteps as a member of the elite military unit that patrols their town of Lkossa. But when an unforeseen tragedy occurs, the teens run away from home and enter the Greater Jungle on a mission to destroy Shetani, the ruthless and magical monster that has been brutally killing the town’s most vulnerable denizens for a century.

Among the book’s many pleasures are the incredible, fantastical creatures Koffi and Ekon encounter in their quest. It turns out, as Gray explains in her author’s note at the end of “Beasts of Prey,” they are mostly drawn from creatures found in various African myths.

“Growing up I loved mythology, but I had no idea there were mythologies outside of Greco-Roman mythologies, which I still love,” said Gray. “When I got older I discovered there are mythologies derived from all over the world and, in fact ,there are many different mythologies on the African continent. I was like a kid in a candy shop. Suddenly, I wanted to know all their stories.”

For those who haven’t noticed, we are in the midst of a renaissance for Black authors. The floodgates have opened to writers long shut out of publishing. It’s a thrilling time to discover new voices, and Gray is proud to be a part of this important moment in publishing history.

“I’m really hopeful that it will sustain, that people will appreciate that it is not a trend,” she said. “Black creators have been around, and have been creating — this is nothing new. It’s just that the recognition is happening, and it’s overdue.”

She dreams of a day when Black children will have access to an unlimited number of books in which they can see themselves.

“My goal is to be part of a bigger movement so when (Black) kids go to bookstores or the library and they’re looking for fantasy, or they’re looking for science fiction, they have not just one option, not just two, not just three, but a whole shelf of options,” she said.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.