The meek shall inherit

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, is a ridiculously optimistic story with a ridiculously decent protagonist. Good thing then that it’s a fantasy novel, or else, in all our cynicism, we would have dismissed it as being ridiculously unrealistic. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the book. We did.

Maia, the half goblin son of the Elf Emperor is too likeable a character, and the book too full of the twists and turns of political intrigue to not be enjoyable. The mixed race Maia, who has been kept in penury away from court, suddenly finds himself the Emperor after his father and all his half brothers die in an accident. Friendless and an outsider, that too of mixed race, he finds himself dealing with all the intrigue and political machinations of those who have been steeped in it their entire lives. And strangely, he comes out each time, doing the right thing for his seemingly ungrateful people.

There are no battles, in this book, with the forces of evil or any sword and sourcery or even dungeons and dragons. All the action comes from the political ambitions and scheming of the characters and Maia learning how to deal with his new situation. We particularly enjoyed his struggles in maintaining all conversation in the royal plural “we” as befits the Emperor.

Maia’s compassionate, non discriminatory, gender equalising, and basically ‘good’ route to power consolidation makes the book a heartening and refreshing read. A fantasy, truly. Just right for Christmas.

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A tale for winter

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A fantasy series based on Russian folklore is unusual and as such The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is an intriguing read. Set in medieval Russia when it was still called Rus, the story is about Vasya, a head strong and free spirited girl, gifted with ‘sight’ and growing up in a small village in the northern provinces.

Arden has very atmospherically described the severity of winters, shortage of food, runny noses and chilblains. The freezing cold of winter is offset by the warmth of Vasya’s family kitchen where the entire family sleeps on the flattop of the oven and where Vasya’s nurse tells magical tales. The province is a place where the summer sun is watery at best and winter with its god, known as the winter king or Morozko, one of the old gods, is predominant. But Morozko is more benign than his brother, the bear Medvedev, who is forever in search of supremacy.

The book, through Vasya’s story, is really about the conflict between the old religions and the new. Vasya and those in her village, though Christians, continue to leave out food for the old gods and spirits of home, hearth, land and forest. This brings them up against the newly appointed priest in their area who wants to wipe away all the old beliefs. In the process of taking control and in his arrogance and self righteousness the priest falls under the sway of Medvedev and ends up strengthening the evil of a being he does not believe in. The story is allegorical in the sense that denial of something’s existence is the best way to fall under its sway, being unprepared to counter it. In Yoda’s (Star Wars) words “Named must your fear be, before banish it you can”.

We find that a lot of fantasy books have a combination of ridiculously old men (who look very young) and feisty young girls (who actually are young) developing a relationship. Is this the Twilight effect, we wonder? But it is getting a little creepy now and makes us worry as to what it says about society. At least in this book Arden has left the relationship between Vasya and the winter king ambiguous but the second book is already out and might have more clarity.

Overall a magical fantasy about winter, the old gods, a girl with magical powers and a horse that is more than a horse. We enjoyed it but we did not find it riveting.

An anniversary

The 19th of November was the 10th anniversary of Amazon releasing the Kindle e-reader. The very first device was a strange clunky looking thing, like something that may have been used in the old Star Trek TV series and considered as cutting edge in the 1970s. Much has happened in the last 10 years, the Kindle in its four variants is sleeker faster, lighter and altogether better. Although most readers just swear by the Paperwhite. After all, there is no other reading device which lets you read in sunlight without any glare on the screen and has an in built light for reading in a dark room. And, oh the joy of being able to turn the page with your nose if your hands are occupied with cutlery.
We have written in the past about our own capitulation to the Kindle way of reading, which is why we decided to answer (seriously) the questions raised in an article in The Guardian on how the kindle has changed us.
1. Are we up past midnight diving into the next novel of some series after buying it with just one click? Hell, yes. The Kindle has taught us to be self indulgent like nothing else.
2. Are we out exploring the vast self published world beyond traditional publishing’s gates? Nope. Our reading tastes are still dictated by the books available in the regular bookshops, award nominees and the reviews published in magazines and newspapers, probably at the behest of publishing giants. Advertising does count. Not to mention well designed book covers. Even if you are not holding said book cover.
3. Have we turned publisher ourselves? Not yet but are tempted by the abandon with which traditional publishing industry doles out rejections. Just goes to show that self publishing is for the writers and not the readers. But not everyone strikes lucky like Andy Weir (of The Martian fame).
4. Has Bezos changed the way people read? The answer to that starts with the question – Is it ever possible to get rid of books? The only one book which one really no longer reaches for is the Dictionary since the Kindle has an in built one. In our case the Kindle, to some extent, has taken the pressure off the book shelves but only adds to the clutter of ever increasing reading material.  Paper books are not replaced by the Paperwhite.

The religion of food

There is nothing in the world that brings out the fighting spirit like food. Food matters. It sustains us, gives us a warm glow in our hearts, fire in our bellies (literally, if the cook had a free hand with the chillies) and nourishment for our cells. Food is what families and friends bond over and gossip over. It is a religion, with billions of faithful followers bowing before the plate. But like all religions there are schisms and everyone claims that their food is better, be it the taste, texture or aroma. But interestingly enough, no one seems to be bothered to make claims about their food being healthier or more nutritious.

People, being possessive are willing to fight for the food that belongs to them and feel a proprietorial right to food originating from their country, region, perhaps even village. The same dish being produced in another place is not considered to be the real thing. The water, soil, air and hands of the local cooks are supposed to add to the flavour of authenticity.  Hence the Geographical Indication (GI) tag, which tells the consumer that the product possesses the qualities and characteristics for which it is reputed, coming from its original place of production. Champagne after all comes from Champagne. Anywhere else, it is merely sparkling wine. Darjeeling tea cannot be grown in Ceylon. And one may make Dharwad peda in Bangalore but it is no good as just peda or Bangalore peda. The geographical indication of Dharwad is its tag of genuiness.

In the last few months that innocuous little spongy ball made from split milk and dunked in sugar syrup has raised quite a storm in the dessert bowl.  The two Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha have, much to the amusement of the rest of us, been slogging it out, vehemently and vociferously, over the Geographical Indication (GI) tag for the rosogolla, rasgulla, rasagula or roshogola. Whatever. We are sure that it would taste just as sweet by any name or spelling variant. Besides, in our opinion gulab jamuns take the cake any day and let’s not even go into the chenna murgis and the motichur laddoos. So, the victory, as finally announced last week by the Geographical Indications registry, lies with West Bengal. The sweet has been registered as the Banglar Rasogolla.  Of course, the Chief Minister of the state lost no time in congratulating the people of West Bengal on something so momentous.

The state of Odisha had apparently filed reams of evidence that the rasagolla (another spelling variant) has been an offering at the famous and ancient Jagannath Puri temple for centuries. As such, it was claimed, it has been around in Odisha much longer than the Bengali version first made by a sweet shop in Calcutta for the sweet discerning  palate of the Bengali populace. But it would seem that not even God can keep the rasogolla from being identified with the Bengalis. As it happens, the lord is probably left quite confused about the GI of his offerings. The priests would be well advised, for maximum blessing, to insert the GI in their offering prayer. After all it could well be counter productive if the deity in the temple starts to protest the authenticity of what is offered.

It just goes to show that the religion of food obviously trumps that of temples. This battle seems to have been resolved with minimal damage but we are not looking forward to the day someone decides to start a Biryani war. Each street corner of different towns, in each state of the country is likely to lay a claim to it. Things could get complicated. We better just be thankful the rasogolla GI is within the country, unlike the chicken tikka masala which is being claimed by the Brits!

In the coils of a myth

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is not only a Victorian story but in many ways feels like it was written in that time. That is how authentic it is. Set mainly in an Essex village, the story itself is like the slow flowing waters of the Thames estuary and is based on an old rumour terrifying the local populace of a monstrous serpent with wings that preyed on the surrounding villages.

Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and finding herself free of an oppressive husband, has moved from London to indulge in her larger interest in fossils and in particular the recent finds in the Blackwater marshes of Essex. Intrigued by stories of the serpent in newspapers, she dreams of the glory of finding a living fossil and is convinced the serpent is not a monster but a creature that has survived from another time. She moves to the village of Aldwinter where the recent sightings have taken place, hoping to spot the serpent.

In the village, Cora, now delightfully independent, having thrown away her corsets, comes up against the superstition that is swamping it. The local parson, William Ransome, who is surprisingly a rationalist believes that science and faith can coexist and refuses to accept the possibility of there being a serpent in any form. He is left dealing with not just his panicking parishioners but also his own feelings for Cora despite the divergence in their thinking and beliefs. There are a whole host of characters, all revolving around Cora and William and their families. Perry describes each one so completely and from various points of view that the reader is able to understand their perspective of the Essex Serpent sightings without being judgmental of their responses.

Ultimately this is novel about the clash between rationality and the kind of superstition that is capable of engulfing and rampaging through societies. The serpent symbolises different things for different people and each character sees in it what they want to; a scientific curiosity, a demon sent for the retribution of the villagers, a  story inciting doubt. derision and contempt, or a symbol of the fall from Eden or even that of the serpent of healing entwining the sceptre of Aeschylus. Whether or not the serpent was real is left to the reader to believe whatever it is that they want to believe.

Set over a period of one year, the novel describes the seasons in lush detail. Through Cora, a compulsive rambler and walker, Perry gives the reader a sensory experience of the sights, sounds and smells of the area. Somehow just the visuals of  Cora striding across the marshes on her own feels emancipating. This is a book to be savoured, mulled over and enjoyed slowly. We were planning to review it earlier but took a long time to read it because of the need to go back and re read some of the paragraphs just for their expression and language. Through the backdrop of an almost gothic story, the reader is lulled into a quiet sort of beauty. Though it won a whole bunch of awards, we are puzzled as to why the book was not longlisted for the Booker prize.

The art of shopping at Khadi bhandar

Khadi –  Indian hand spun, hand woven natural fibre cloth.

Bhandar – a shop, store, stockroom, warehouse, depository.

Khadi Bhandar – a government run shop, supposedly for stocking and selling khadi products. But we are not quite sure about the selling bit.

Shopping is supposed to be fun and relaxing but we have learnt that this is not always the case. Normal shops by definition exist to ‘sell’ and to this end will do their best to keep their customers happy. One walks in intending to buy A and the shop will do its best to also sell you B and C. Not so at the Khandi Bhandar where even getting into the door is a challenge. Recent experiences have left us gritting our teeth in exasperation. Which is why we decided to compile a list of for and against to warn the unwary.

Against:

  1. A customer has to negotiate the two hour siesta which extends half an hour in each direction, government holidays, weekly off days, biannual stock taking week (sometimes fortnight).
  2. The only clear month that the customer has are the days in October following Gandhi Jayanti, when the shop is open through the day without a break for lunch. To make up for this, the shop employees are doubly unaccommodating and recalcitrant. The customer is likely to be left standing, hoping to catch someone’s attention while the shop ladies discuss the latest scandal in their lives as they shell peas on the counter for their dinner. Numerous “excuse me”s and discreet coughs are ignored, forcing the customer to curb their instincts to scream and storm out.
  3. Upon your obstinate refusal to budge, someone will finally deign to notice you and ask what you want in a tone of voice implying that there are no freebies, you have been categorised as a time waster and possibly a stealer of shelled peas. The reluctance to take anything out of the shelves is almost pathological since customers are well known to unravel bales of cloth with their grubby hands. Not to mention taking up time and space in the shop holding up said bales against themselves in front of the mirror.
  4. Persuasive powers and ingratiatingly smiley faces have no effect on the hardened Khadi Bhandar employee, nor does a display of clean hands and fingernails. If one does manage somehow to cajole them to cut meterage of cloth that catches the eye, it will be hacked viciously and unevenly by the bluntest possible scissors. The lady behind the counter must, till the very end, display her unhappiness at being made to work so hard. It matters not that the shop is empty otherwise.
  5. To top it all, we now have to pay 12% Tax on the fabric. It almost makes one wonder whether it is worth the effort.

For:

  • Therein lies the catch. It is worth it. The Khadi stuff, once one manages to view some, is really great. It is also a very happening fabric right now, popular with high fashion designers and much more reasonably priced at the government outlets as compared to boutique stores. Which means we end up going back time and again, suckers for the total disinterest and disdain meted out to us. Also they probably don’t have an online presence because how do you bring these attitudes to an online store.

So the next time you are brave enough to venture into one of these places, make sure you are not in a rush, keep your temper in check and perhaps wear a tooth guard to prevent from grinding away the enamel on your teeth. Also, it is possibly a great place to work, taking into account the lack of work happening there.

 

 

Legions of Angels

EAA22AD9-21E5-4F57-8DED-2F4B1792DF12The House of Shattered Wings (Dominion of the Fallen) by Aliette de Bodard is a dark and intriguing speculative fiction book which won the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association)award for best novel in 2015.

Paris is in ruins because of a war that happened between the Houses of the Fallen but a tenuous peace is now maintained. Because rivalry cannot be entirely forgotten, the Houses continue to work against each other in more subtle ways. Other than the Houses, the city is overrun by gangs scavenging amongst the destruction and debris and occupied by magicians, witches and alchemists. In this backdrop comes Isabelle, a newly fallen angel who forms an inadvertent bond with Philippe, a former immortal from an eastern colony.
The angels all lose their wings as a consequence of the fall from, presumably Heaven, but is referred to as the City. None of them remember why they fell, only that they no longer exist in a state of grace. Isabelle and Phillipe are taken in by Silver Spires, the oldest house, set up by the original fallen, Morningstar, who had disappeared 20 years back.

Bodard interestingly juxtaposes aspects of eastern belief systems against western beliefs and background. On the one hand there are the Fallen, the City, references to God but there is also the Court of the Jade Emperor, the Dragon Kingdoms, including the one below the polluted Seine, which all hint at the existence of numerous spiritual heavens. The reader is required to be open to multiple philosophies to truly appreciate the book.

The magic works differently for the adherents of each system; Philippe draws his from nature while the Fallen come with magical powers that dwindle as they age.
Not surprisingly, despite a number of characters, the reader comes away with the impression that the story revolves around the one character who is missing, and that is Morningstar whose aura and personality loom over everyone and each event in the book.

The unknowns are what make the book a compelling read. Most of the questions are not answered but it is a series so there is more to come. The Fallen of Silver Spires live around the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral but it is not deconsecrated, some even attend mass. So there is no clear animosity as far as God is concerned. Hell is a devastated Paris and perhaps evil is not the causing of pain but the indifference to it and the lack of empathy. Despite the existence of magic and magical beings, the one truly powerful force in the book is a human’s desire for revenge.

De Bodard’s book is not like your typical dystopian, post apocalyptic fiction which revolves around one person or a group’s struggle to stay alive or create some order out of the chaos. Instead it is a re-imagining of faith, belief and politics, leaving the readers conflicted between their own conditioning and concepts of what define right and wrong and good and evil.

(The second book in the Dominion of the Fallen series is The House of Binding Thorns)