Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Crown of Wishes

If given space, I could wax eloquent about Indian and Indian-inspired fantasy for days on end. I can tell you all the  problems that (I think) beset it, and how these are not any fault of the  writers, but the  curious definition of ‘fantasy’, such a Western one that depends on a certain severance from belief and faith. Can you write Christian fantasy, for instance, without running into trouble and the waters of offence? Philip Pullman tried, and succeeded, to a certain extent, but I’d argue that the  moment he waded into Bible-heavy streams, his books lost much of their magic and power to dazzle, instead walking along the  edge of becoming transparently ‘agenda’-driven. Same with C.S. Lewis, who did it a trifle more hamfistedly decades ago. Myth fic in India is plagued by the  same troubles, with few authors managing to break the shackles of received wisdom and create something new from the  bricks of the  old: Samit Basu is a notable exception, and some of the  newer authors, like Shweta Taneja and Indra Das, have made strides here as well.

crownAnd so has Roshani Chokshi. Here, I reviewed her debut novel, The  Star Touched Queen. I called it a ‘fairy tale that strides through the  cosmos, refusing to be bound to one particular location, though it is quite culturally rooted in a Hindu setting/tradition. Her follow up, the  literal ‘sister’ to the  first novel is A Crown of Wishes, which tells the  story of Gauri, princess of Bharata, and Vikram, the  Fox Prince of Ujijain. It is, like its predecessor, a love story, but it also bears some of the  more recognizable elements of the  fairy tale, especially given its reliance on that staple: the  tournament, and its related, seemingly impossible, tasks.

Betrayed by her brother and cast out from her kingdom, Gauri finds herself at the  mercy of Vikram, the  prince of the  neighbouring empire of Ujijain. Vikram has just received an invitation to compete in a tournament held by Kubera, the  God of Wealth. He must enlist with a partner, and the  prize, should they win through the  three tasks set for them, is a wish apiece. Desperate to prove himself a worthy successor to the  throne, and not remain the  ‘puppet king’ his father’s council seeks to make of him, Vikram convinces Gauri to partner with him. Not only will she escape the death that awaits her in Ujijain, but this way, she can see to winning a wish of her own, and seeking vengeance against her brother, who holds her kingdom and her friend, Nalini, hostage.

What unfolds is an adventure story that moves between worlds and kingdoms, from the  glittering harem of Ujijain to the Otherworldly Night Bazar (the  site of much drama in TSTQ), from the craggy fortress of the  vanars to the  glittering wish-granting fantasy of Alaka, the  kingdom of the  Lord of Wealth and his consort, the  Kauveri River. Gauri and Vikram find themselves tested in increasingly harrowing ways, and learn truths about themselves and each other (well, it’s a fairy tale—that’s sort of de rigeur). But along the  way, they also make a friend, who is perhaps the  most compelling character in the  book: Asha, a conflicted vishakanya, who dreams of living a life unmarred by poison. Asha kills everything she touches, and can see through to a person’s deepest desires, but she cannot do something as simple as bathe her feet in water, or stroke a bed of grass without someone or something else paying the price for her actions. She longs, like the  Little Mermaid, to be part of a world that at once lusts after and fears her, and out of curiosity, befriends and helps these two strange humans, who are so lost in her magical world.

A Crown of Wishes carries forward Chokshi’s worldbuilding, her creation of a place where Hindu myth comfortably divests itself of the  ‘religious’ overtones that both distort and elevate it, instead using its characters and some of its concepts in creative ways to populate and push her story forward. The  vanars of Ramayana fame here become an abandoned people, left behind by their queen Tara on her pursuit for vengeance. The  Serpent King, a descendent of Kaliya, become a pathos-ridden, Hades-like figure, scorned for his alleged rape of the  Kapila River. Their story becomes a tale within this larger tale, and a mirror to that of Maya and Amar, one of misunderstanding and secrets, and a desire to reach out to another, alien soul.

In an interview with Bustle, Chokshi speaks of writing for ‘second culture kids’, those who are not native Indians, but children of the  diaspora. These are kids whose ‘exposure was different, but whose claim to those tales is the  same.’ ‘It’s a weird limbo’ she acknowledges, but it definitely works well in her case, if this is the  result. Chokshi’s ‘limbo’ state might have allowed her to free herself of the  derivative prisons that myth, and adherence to its, so often imposes on writers, giving her free rein with the  colourful figures and plots that are so rife in Hindu mythology. As a native Indian reader myself, I can only enjoy this liberated look at what’s so often churned out unexamined, and hope that there will be more to come. While Chokshi may have moved on to different projects (her next series is set in ‘a darkly glamorous Paris’), there’s plenty of space for other authors to take up the  challenge, and continue the  task of building an Indian fantasy trove that works both here and for kids of second, indeed, third or entirely ‘other’ cultures. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Seasons of Splendour

There are a number of ways to anchor a tale: to a character, to a particular location, to a timeframe. Most novelists I read choose the  first, fewer the  second, and even fewer, the third. This is not representative of trends in general; as I said, most novelists I read do this.

In the  fantasy genre, which overlaps so much with the  more hazily defined myth and fairytale realm, it is easier, I think, to tether your story to a person, or a being of some kind. So much of your world, especially if its high fantasy, is foreign to your readers already. Usually, writers give them a crutch to hold onto as they enter this world, and that comes in the  form of an easily sympathetic character like Harry Potter, or Lucy Pevensie. Even Martin goes with this technique, preferring to reel readers in with morally relatable characters like the  Stark family first, before launching on them the  Lannisters and the  Greyjoys.

Two books I read recently depart from this use of character as anchor, instead going with the  third option: timeframe. They use the  central tenet of a season in order to frame a tale, and define the  things that happen with it. The flow of time, or what we humans perceive as time (Arrival, anyone?), and the  need to maintain that flow, ensure it is without disruption, is what forms the  central tenet of these novels: Eowyn Ivey’s The  Snow Child and Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong.

snow-childThe  Snow Child is set in Alaska, in the  1920s. It uses a tale familiar from many cultures around the  world. A childless couple, Mabel and Jack, arrive in Alaska, ready to start a new life. What they desire, perhaps more than anything, is a child, but tragedy has taken this chance from them time and again. One snowy evening, Mabel and her husband build a child out of snow, and afterwards, strange things start happening, beginning with a little child, Fiona, arriving in their backyard.

The  child becomes part of their lives, living with them in the  winter months, disappearing in the  spring and summer. Mabel’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep her within the  house clash with Fiona’s desire to return outside to the  world she knows, the  landscape she loves. Jack and Mabel find happiness in being with her, but for Fiona, they are one small part of her experience, of a world that also includes the  Alaskan mountains, and wolverines, and deep, pine forests.

The book drags a bit, the  characters becoming dull and a trifle predictable halfway through. Perhaps the  problem is that Ivey has picked a fairytale that is, all said and done, a short one, one whose ending cannot be anything other than melancholic. We know that for all Mabel’s attempts, Fiona will leave, whether it is through the  door and up into the  mountains, like a ‘normal’ human, or fading away into the  snow covered landscape, like her magical counterparts in the tales.

Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but I enjoyed Beagle’s Summerlong much better. This novel, or novella, I suppose, since it is almost unfairly short, is set in a lingering summer on Gardner Island, near summerlongSeattle. Abe and Joanna, a late middle aged couple, find their lives turned upside down when they meet Lioness Lazos, a beautiful, mysterious young woman, who waitresses at a restaurant they have been frequenting for years. Lioness seems to be on the  run from someone, and eager to help her, Abe and Joanna step in, Abe even offering her shelter in his home. In return, Lioness brings with her small acts of kindness, that take the  form of magic—plants unfurling from the  soil in moments, beached orcas being guided back joyfully into the  sea, balmy weather that shields the  island from its usual, wintery tempests. It doesn’t take long for Abe and Joanna, or readers, for that matter, to figure out who she is: Persephone, of the  Greek myths. And with that realization comes another: Hades must be on his way to find her.

Beagle’s prose is beautiful. Seriously, this was one of those few books where I found myself putting it aside, hoping to lengthen the  experience and savour it for a little longer. His evocation of the  gods and their role in this world, in keeping things running smoothly, is perhaps more poetically done than even that master of modern deities, Gaiman. Witness, for instance, Abe’s defense, to Joanna, of why Lioness must return to the  dark realm she so abhors:

‘Because if she isn’t coming and going with the  seasons, everything’s out of balance, everything…The  world needs winter, the  world needs volcanoes, the  world needs floods, storms, bloody hurricans, because you cannot have Primavera without nasty.Demeter has to grieve for Persephone when she’s away in the  Underworld, and Demeter has to rejoice when she returns…’

Beagle’s depiction of Hades, too, is similarly nuanced. Not the  cartoonish villain of so many other books, Hades here is a melancholic, thoughtful god, a refined individual who knows his role, and while he might lament it, must carry on with his job, as one of the  few of the  pantheon who still ‘matter.’ Beagle’s Hades weeps for the  wrongs he’s done to Persephone, the  long charade they must play, and the  forces even larger than him that have made him what he is. ‘There were three brothers,’ he tells Joanna with a bitter smile, ‘and the  youngest was given a realm that nobody wanted.’

Summerlong is a rare and beautiful book, melding larger questions of death and life and humanity into the  relatively short burst of 200 pages. It is a book that’s meant to be savoured, to be thought about, somewhat like Gaiman’s American Gods, the  book that comes closest in terms of theme. But Summerlong, like its title promises, has a completely different mood from the  latter. Where Gaiman’s Norse gods are champions of iron and blood, the  Greek deities here, and the people they are entangled with, literally and physically, are mellow, evoking images of sunny seas and pale yellow wines, bursting berries and nodding heads of wheat. But despite this, a truth is never far from Beagle’s, or the  reader’s ken: lying at the  base of all this beauty, and nourishing it, bis the  dark loam of the  soil, where the  dead things go.

A Tale of Elven Overlords

There are so many things to love about Tolkien’s mythos, but my favourite part has been, for a long time, the Elves. As I outlined in this post on Lee Pace’s depiction of Thranduil, these are a people who are markedly similar to humans in some ways (physically, culturally), so much so that we tend to forget they are not human. This may be, in some ways, Tolkien’s fault. His Elves are by and large ‘good’ to humans, having little of the chanciness and amorality that form defining features of the  Fair Folk in myths and fairy tales. Even so, despite validating them as amazing beings, there are slips in Tolkien’s narrative, where he makes clear that Elves and Men do not always get along, and that the  dawning of Men means the  end of the  other race, that their time on Middle Earth is done. He does not test whether, given Man’s inevitable industrial development, relations between the  two would remain on good terms, even in the extremely idealized kingdom of Gondor.

those-above-coverIn some ways, Daniel Polansky’s duology, Those Above and Those Below is a what-if that could be set in Middle Earth. What if, instead of gracefully exiting, stage west, the  Eldar had continued to dwell in the  same lands as the  humans? What if there had been no Dark Lord, or Orcs to fight, and hence no need for the  two races to have united fronts in the  first place? Would Nature have taken its course, with the  more advanced of the  two, the  Elves, holding dominion over the  many? It’s entirely possible, and that is almost precisely the  premise of Polansky’s narrative.

The  Others, the  Eternal, the  Birds—call them what you will, these strange, extremely-long-lived, graceful, almost unbearably beautiful beings have decimated the  human armies that have dared to oppose them. They dwell at the  top of a mountain, in the  Roost, with the  five lower rungs populated by the  humans who serve them. Outside their lands lie the  human realms, empires that rise and fall, always held at bay by terror of the  Eternal. Until now.

I won’t lie, Those Above takes its time to unfold. The  story moves through four different viewpoints: Bas, a  military commander of the  Aelerian army, Eudokia, widow of a prominent political family, and spinner of schemes, Calla, a high ranking servant to one of the  Eternal, and Thistle, a teenaged malcontent who scrounges for respect, and a living, on the  Fifth Rung, the  most poverty-stricken area of the  Roost. With four such seemingly disparate storylines, it takes a while for things to cohere, for some sort of grand picture to form in the  mind of the  reader. The  Aelerian sections specifically, those that belong to Eudokia, seem most disconnected from the  rest, related as they are to the  politicking and manoeuvring of an empire that seems as far from the  Roost and its inhabitants as anything can possibly be. It’s only about three quarters of the  way through that the  narratives seem to come together, and the  threads of Polansky’s plot glimmer into view.

But when they do come together, the  effect is so worth it. If Lord of those-belowthe  Rings is the  premise, the  execution is all Martin, with heavy shades of Westeros overlying the  interactions. Though we’re in these characters’ heads, and hence privy to a lot of their thoughts and emotions, Polansky still manages to pull the  rug out from under your feet, and let them surprise you. This is quite an achievement, given that the  characters themselves seem almost instantly recognizable types: the  bluff, but essentially good, military man, the  scheming widow, the  pretty, devoted servant, and the  angry young man. And yet, the  way they play against each other, and the  events that they are spiraled into, make the  reading worthwhile.

Though finally, it’s the  Eternal who hold it all together, who with their remoteness and unknowability, keep the  reader hooked. Despite having two books that are all about the  struggles against them, and the  various forms those struggles take, the  Eternal remain a mystery to everyone, the  humans in their world, and the  readers too. And yet, they keep drawing you back, and just when you think you’ve gotten a hang of how they think, or why they do what they do, they turn around and show you that hang on, they’re not comprehensible after all. They’re not good, or evil. They are a people, and their motivations and rationale are far, far beyond our comprehension.

Those Above and its sequel are brutal books, reflecting the  world they move through. There is no idyll here, no Gondor with saintly kings, or Loriens with wise Queens. There is beauty, but it cannot blot out misery and corruption. In that way, the  books are depressingly realistic, you might say, but hell, a lot of the  best fantasy these days lies in that territory. Realistic by human standards, that is. What the  Eternal would make of it, nobody knows, probably not even Polansky himself.