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) 

 

 

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Traffication

   Every year we think the city has reached rock bottom as far as the roads and traffic go and the following year always proves us overly optimistic. But this year has managed to completely boggle everyone’s minds.

  After the last three years of near drought conditions the rain gods have now freaked out. We have had the highest recorded annual rainfall in 115 years in the last one week. Not surprisingly the city has sprouted numerous waterfalls, unexpected lakes which have submerged houses, raging rivers sweeping away everything in their path and roads have disintegrated and disappeared. Only Google maps seem to know where the roads are; they are certainly not visible to the naked eye.

  Bangalore has always been one of those places where no one ever discusses the weather because we don’t really have to deal with extreme weather conditions. In fact every time one of us goes out of the city we realise how spoilt we are as Bangalorians and how unequipped we are to deal with the climate elsewhere. During lunch in a crowded restaurant today, we noticed that all the tables around us were only discussing the rains, the resultant chaos and the traffic jams. So weather is dominating conversations now. Unfortunately the local authorities and local government live in the same bubble as us and really don’t know how to deal with climate change beyond blaming it on the influx of outsiders, who somehow bring the change with them.

   The city has been gridlocked the last few days and each jam has its own legends developing of how people survived it. People who did not move fifty feet in three hours had to check into nearby hotels just to wait out the jam, leading to a friend coining the term ‘traffication’. There are vacations and staycations but in  Bangalore the populace most needs traffications as respite from the horrendous jams. The city is on all the national news channels for its particular brand of chaos. What is most amazing is that a city which has the highest concentration of engineers is incapable of applying tech know-how for either managing traffic or laying decent roads.

  They say that it never rains where the sinners are, so Bangalore must be full of the most blessed people on earth. Except no one is feeling blessed right now.

Magical

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We had been hearing about the The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for sometime but somehow never managed to get around to reading it till now. For this we have to blame the blurb by Knopf Doubleday which showed up on the library site and which makes the book sound something like a racy thriller. The reviews which were mostly positive also somehow never managed to convey the brilliant atmospheric quality and lyrical nature of the book.

Two powerful magician/sorcerers have had a long and on going battle for centuries in which they pit their current protégés against each other in a contest to prove their capabilities and the superiority of the training imparted to them. Each contest has a different setting as agreed by the masters and this time around the venue is a mystical, nocturnal circus known as Le Cirque des Reves, which magically appears for an unannounced number of days at an unannounced venue. The contestants Marco and Celia are the essence of the circus and power the entire setup. Their expertise and talent displayed in the wondrous and magical exhibitions that are from time to time added to the circus. Erin Morgenstern describes these exhibits in poetic detail as she does the development of the relationship between the two contestants.

This is a book about a competition yet there is no rapid succession of bangs and bursts but a enchanting progression through the creativity of the protagonists. The detailed descriptions suck the reader into the magical black and white world of the circus with its maze of tents housing various exhibits and performances but the most spectacular are those created by the two contestants pitted against each other in a display of magical skill : an ice garden, a wishing tree, a labyrinth, a carousel of magical creatures and a pool of tears. Erin Morgenstern’s writing transports one to the extent that the reader can almost smell the smoke and caramel and palpably feel the excitement of the Reveurs, the group of people in black and white with a hint of red, passionately following the circus around the world.

Like the black and white of the circus, the book veers between the light of the main characters whose discovery of each other and the beauty of their creations are juxtaposed against the darkness of the respective masters with their obsessive self absorption hinting at an unsavoury outcome. The story moves gradually along with the contestants as they move from place to place and move on from competing with each other to creating for each other and finally to collaborating. Almost like two competing gardeners who fall in love with each other’s gardens and cannot help themselves from adding to the other’s creations. And the story unfolds like a slow wait for flowers to bloom as the sun rises as opposed to a time lapse bloom which passes by in a moment.

Some books defy description and no matter what one says, the feeling of reading the book, like the circus, can only be experienced.

Booker Takeover

We are back to the time of the year when the Man Booker Prize shortlist comes out. Shock, horror and surprise, of the six shortlisted novels, three of the authors are American. Now who really thought, when they opened up the prize in 2014 to include American writers, that the Americans would not come to dominate the long and short lists? In fact the three other books are by British writers, although one of them is of Pakistani origin. There goes the Commonwealth nature of the prize, straight out of the window or straight into the trash can as the Americans would say (no dustbins over there). 

Does this mean that the Americans write better than anyone else writing in English? Are their concepts more daring or are they more imaginative or do they push the boundaries of literature and language more than anyone else?   Are the rest of us in the English speaking world still floundering in our colonial rut, merely replicating Rudyard Kipling over and over again? Or is it just a simple case of publishers who make money on the sale of American books are keen to get the publicity and advertising that a place on the shortlist brings about? 

The best part of it is that the Americans are incapable of understanding regular English. This is why the American editions of most novels have to have spellings, words and phrases changed to enable better understanding.  Spellings like ‘colour’ and ‘centre’ tend to leave the Americans floundering in the dark and the rest of the world has to pronounce route as ‘rout’ which until recently had meant a disorderly retreat after defeat, not a way of getting somewhere. JK Rowling has now famously regretted changing the title of the first Harry Potter book from ‘The Philosophers Stone’ to ‘The Sorcerers Stone’ for the American edition. A change that was most perplexing to most of us, it’s not as if the word ‘philosopher’ is somehow more esoteric than the word ‘sorcerer’. Words like car park, roundabout and cinema have to regularly be changed to parking lot, carousel and movie theatre for US editions of books. It doesn’t matter that most people read on a kindle, it would be too difficult to put one’s finger on the word and have the dictionary meaning pop up.

Countries of the Commonwealth have developed different terminologies and manner of speaking English and yet their people not only read but enjoy books written in English from around the world. Ultimately it is about getting the local flavour and colour from the writing. Alexander McCall Smith has a lot of colloquialisms in his books set in Botswana but then it is meant to be Botswana. What would be the point of Mma Ramotswe and Co. sounding like they were living in an American suburb?  So it does seem a little ironic that the Americans, with their blinkered view of the English language are now dominating most of the prestigious literature prizes. We enjoy books by American writers and read them all the time but that is no reason to change the language for their sake or make them eligible for the prizes where they have no business being. 

The best bit of grumble we heard recently was from a twelve year old who had by mistake downloaded an American edition of her favourite book on to her kindle and then complained endlessly that the biscuits which the characters ate had become cookies. For her that was unpalatable. 

 

Two way scary

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C. S. Lewis famously said ‘A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.

Not many authors writing for children manage to reach the balance required for universal popularity but Jonathan Stroud does so outstandingly. The fifth and final instalment of the Lockwood & Co. series, ‘The Empty Grave‘, has been eagerly awaited by persons of all ages and subsequent to its release, day before yesterday, led to acrimonious situations in a household (known to us) where only one book was available. 

The last book in any fantasy series is always frightening  because you just don’t know which of the characters the author is going to kill off, particularly since it seems to have become de rigueur for authors to do so nowadays. A readers’s sense of doom is further compounded if the author has gone out of his way to drop audacious hints about the impending demise of the main character; the trepidation that follows the reader through the book can be nerve wrackingly, nail bitingly scary. There is then a double whammy of fear when the book happens to be populated by ghosts, poltergeists, spectres, et al. 

The team of Lockwood & Co. is back, eating doughnuts, drinking tea, arguing with each other, making smart comments and filling in their ‘working tablecloth’ with notes, rude comments and even worse drawings. All of this while fighting various ghostly apparitions, getting close to solving the mystery behind the ‘Problem’ infesting the world and fearlessly dealing with large and ruthless corporations. All this while also growing up. 

(The following conversation may contain spoilers.) 

LL: I guess that is the sad part of it. There couldn’t be books of them as grown ups, so it’s probably best to wind up the series now. Although as a reader, I loved it all so much, I would definitely want more.

PS: The only thing that bothered me through the book was the fear that something could happen to either one of the main characters but especially Lockwood and especially after Chapter 6. It’s amazing how as readers we become so emotionally invested in the characters. 

LL: But at the same time I felt all those hints were red herrings. 

PS: This is probably the first book we have read in parallel, instead of, as we usually do, borrowing the other person’s copy. It was fun to text each other our progress, trepidations and reactions through the reading. 

LL: I know! And we both managed to finish the book in a day, having been completely engrossed by it.

PS: So much so that we decided to do the review today instead of waiting until Monday

LL: Stroud’s descriptions of each of the characters is increasingly engaging. Even after four books he finds new ways of depicting Lockwood, George, Lucy, Holly, Kipps and the skull in the jar (who talks to Lucy), describing their idiosyncrasies as well as their distinctive reactions to each situation.

PS: The main characters all work well together as a team. Which is surprising considering that they are all fairly rude to each other. And Lockwood is such a ‘hero’! Which could have made him irritating to the reader but in spite of that it is only the skull, with his dubious morality, who is irritated by him.

LL: We have always felt that Lockwood is in the league of Diana Wynn Jones’s characters like Howl and Chrestomancy; a peacock (with his swirling coat and slightly too tight suits) who is inherently a decent human being, outrageously brave, as well as being a good leader who inspires confidence.

PS: The best part, I think, is that very frightening and tense situations are lightened by the humorous conversations and quips of the characters, not to mention the chocolate eating and tea drinking.

We would like to thank Jonathan Stroud for: 

  1. Publishing regular installments over the years, including the concluding book. Which is no small feat in light of the tardy manner in which popular writers behave these days. 
  2. For providing us with such a wonderfully scary and fun bunch of ghost stories. 
  3. For leaving us with no quibbles regarding the ending except perhaps the lack of clarity re the identity of the skull. 

In light of what we had mentioned in an earlier blog post, we feel Jonathan Stroud is definitely entitled to awards.

Raining Misery

Here in Bangalore we have had the driest ever July and almost the wettest ever August and now we seem to be well on our way to setting a new wet record for September. Somehow it just never rains but pours. Which is all very well if the authorities had their act together. But then, the authorities may question “What act?” Everything is going the way it is meant to go, which is literally down the drain. The whole problem is that it is the infrastructure going down the drain and not the stuff that is actually supposed to. The rain waters swilling and swirling around the streets have a good mix of garbage in it, for extra zest and flavour; like an interestingly concocted soup straight out of a witch’s cauldron. The only thing lacking is probably a couple of drops of dragon blood but perhaps the dead snakes will do.

The pitifully few lakes which are left in Bangalore are breaching their banks or foaming with abandon. This may sound exciting per se but when you consider that it is pollutants and chemicals that are causing the foam, the picture loses its charm. The best part of it is that while the foaming was ignored for years, its only when it spilled over and started attacking passing cars and nearby flats, attracting national and international attention, that the local government deigned to acknowledge there was something of the sort happening. The foam of course is coming from the chemicals let into the lake by the industries in the area but those of course are part of the unholy nexus of industries, the municipal corporation, the pollution control board and the ever present politicians. Not surprisingly, the authorities thought the best way to handle the situation was to threaten to file cases against the very apartments that were complaining, for letting out partially treated sewage into the lake. This in their wisdom was the most effective way of taking care of the problem.

And then we have the problem of the low lying areas which get flooded over and over again. The only difficulty is that the water is behaving in the way it should, it’s just the city which has spilled over the lake beds. Of course the government is not to be blamed for the permissions given to construct buildings and concretise the lakes. It just somehow happened by magic.

The only thing larger than the problem of inundation is the ego of each department of the government that needs to take care of the issue. It’s beneath their dignity to talk to each other so they delay while things spiral out of control and then the sun comes out and it all dries up until the cycle repeats next year. The most obvious post the government needs to start filling is that of coordinator of departments and assuager of big egos. Anyone applying for the job?

 

Privacy!

IMG_3110.JPGFor centuries Indians have been all about everybody else’s business. Absolute strangers one meets on the train, plane, the street, in the mall or the person next to you in line at the vegetable shop, feel well within their right to interrogate you about your religion, caste, marital status, children or the deplorable lack of them, age, salary, whether one is vegetarian, ‘non-vegetarian’ or a vegetarian who eats eggs. Yes, it has to be that specific. Nowadays one even gets asked for one’s cell phone number as if it is public information. But then, because it is India, it probably is. So in this background, the Supreme Court last week has gone and meddled with our basic Indian ness by bringing in this outlandish, alien and western concept of privacy and held that privacy is a fundamental right. Now what are we supposed to do with it?

A nine judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the case filed by Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) of the Karnataka High Court (Yay!) has unanimously held (in its 547 page judgement) that privacy is a constitutionally protected value. In so doing the court has overturned older judgements (some of them notorious and harking back to the Emergency) and decided that since privacy is an inherent constitutional right, it is not a right granted by the state and it cannot therefore be taken away by the state. Which also means that our biometrics belong to us. Whaaa…? That too after we went through all that hassle of getting our stupid Aadhar cards (Unique Identity cards) made. The judgement also has implications, except no one as yet knows exactly how, on people’s right to eat certain foods (read Beef), the way they dress (please note all the people who live to tell women how to dress), what they do in their bedrooms, maybe even what they drink(states imposing prohibition may have a problem) and not to have our online movements and information sold to social media giants and advertisers. Although how that last one will be regulated is anyone’s guess.

How are we going to cope with all this change? What about the people (men and women) with nosy ‘aunty’ tendencies? Will they be told when going about their usual day to day enquiries that the subjects of their questioning have the fundamental right to be left alone? How will they deal with it? And having lost their chief vocation in life, will they then turn to crime? Or will they legitimise their natural tendencies by opening detective businesses? The judgement has raised so many questions and only time will answer some of them, not to mention a diligent reading of all 547 pages. But no matter the detailed repercussions, the idea itself will take some getting used to.

Welcome India to the concept of Privacy!