A Dark and Creepy Tale

FC12A861-045A-4B37-8605-7683ED2A3444

  We are not too sure about the story but the kind of attention that Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo has been receiving has us seriously astounded. We are still trying to figure out how a book published at the end of October has been read by so many people and voted to be the winner of the Goodreads best fantasy book of 2019. We find this a bit dubious particularly since Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden happens to be listed in the same category. The one possible explanation that we could come up with is that perhaps it is the Yale network that has worked in Bardugo’s favour, since the book is set in Yale and the author herself is from there. Also, legions of Bardugo’s YA readers, now old enough to read this, her first adult fantasy book, might have voted based on their fondness for her YA books.
  The story centres around the magical and occult powers focused at New Haven and Yale. Nine secret societies, channelling different occult abilities, were set up more than a century ago at the University.  The societies, or houses as they are known, have wide reaching influence since their members, after graduation, go on to positions of power and money. The ninth society or ninth house is Lethe which was set up to monitor the other houses and ensure that their rituals don’t get out of hand. Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern is not the usual Yale student, considering she had dropped out of high school. She has been recruited by Lethe house because of her ability to see ghosts which abound in and around the Yale campus. She gets embroiled in the investigation of the murder of a ‘townie’ which leads her to uncover more dirty secrets of the houses and their members.
  There is murder, mayhem, gruesome rituals, blood and gore, ghosts and demons. There is also a constant mention of the difference between the wealthy, entitled students and Alex who comes from a very different background. Ninth house has been touted as Leigh Bardugos first adult fantasy book and certainly has extremely unsavoury descriptions of sexual assaults, drug abuse, self harm etc, yet the author has not been able to break away completely from a YA style of writing. Most of the characters are in their late teens or early twenties. The story is set in a college campus after all. There is a lot of darkness to the book but being grimdark and making the reader uncomfortable is not the only thing which makes for an adult fantasy. We felt that a certain amount of emotional depth was perhaps lacking. The story is interesting and readable but at times it felt like a Buffy story but without the vampires.
  Though we have said the story was interesting, the style of writing  means it’s a bit of a slog. Not a ‘I can’t put it down’ book. More of a ‘I have to make myself finish it’ book.

The fear of dreams

call down the hawk

 Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvateter is, not surprisingly, all about dreams, dreamers and the dreamt. This trilogy follows her earlier Raven Cycle quartet and Ronan, one of the Raven boys, takes central stage. For fans this means, sadly, no Gansey and no Blue. But Declan and Matthew Lynch, Ronan’s brothers, who were pale shadows in the Raven Cycle have been fleshed out, made more interesting and with more personality than one could have imagined.

 A mysterious shadowy organisation, which is possibly associated with the government in some way, is going around killing the dreamers who have the capability to bring back people, creatures, objects and even, in Ronan’s case, entire forests from their dreams into the real world. The organisation, believing that a dreamer will cause the apocalypse, is hunting down and indiscriminately getting rid of all of them. Ronan, for the most part, not being able to control what he brings back from his dreams, has secluded himself at The Barnes, his parents’ farm. He sees his life stretching out before him, thus confined and lonely, while his partner Adam has gone off to study at Harvard. He has always believed that apart from his father and one of the boys that he knew at school, he is the only dreamer with the capability of bringing his dreams to life until his dreams are infiltrated by the enigmatic Bryde and he is forced to set out into the world.

 The story is narrated from multiple points of view, the three main being  Ronan,  Jordan Hennessy a thief, and an art forger who has dreamt multiple copies of herself and Carmen Farooq-Lane who is hunting down the dreamers.   Maggie Stiefvater as usual writes beautifully but the beginning of the this book was a little disorienting considering the number of new characters introduced. An intriguing theme of the novel is the concept that sometime the copy, whether it be of art or of a person, can be ‘more’ than the original and takes on a life of its own and that the created has free will of the creator. A lot of fantasy novels these days have an underground market selling contraband and magical items, mostly inspired, we think by Neil Gaiman’s Floating Market in Neverwhere. The Fairy market in this book is one of the better and perhaps more Gaimanish than the ones in other books.

 The many story lines in the book managed to pull together mid-way through after which, we thought, the story really took off. But the ending felt like we had bought one of those defective prints of a book where suddenly you find pages missing and you are left not knowing what happens next and wanting to pull the sword out of Ronan’s hands and start killing someone. Stiefvater better ensure the next book is out soon.

A cop out

 The week before last the women in the country had to once again face how unsafe things are for them in the most nightmarish way possible. A young veterinary doctor  in Hyderabad was stranded on the highway because of a punctured tyre on her scooter. She was abducted, raped and killed by four men who then set her body on fire in order to destroy the evidence. As usual when something horrific like this happens there is public outrage, the news channels indulge in short lived hysteria  and the politicians jump in with their two bits. More often than not it’s the wrong two bits where they not only put their foot in their mouths but also swallow it whole.

 It is surely a sign of the times that lawmakers instead of worrying about the implementation of the laws, stand up in parliament and call for public lynching, in total disregard of the Constitution, the justice delivery system and the oath that they have taken; all to win brownie points with the public which is baying for blood. Forget about ensuring law enforcement or providing security for women, since these things are all too difficult for our politicians to handle and would require actual work, they would rather make stupid statements to garner maximum attention. Not that we can expect any hard work, effort or thought processes from people who win elections by handing out money and then making more money to make up for it through their years in office.

 Then there are the great and wonderful police who caught the Hyderabad perpetrators pretty much immediately but then couldn’t handcuff or anklecuff them and couldn’t even secure their own weapons. This resulted in the four accused succeeding in wresting guns from the cops during the crime scene recreation and were then shot dead by the weapons they had not managed to grab hold of. The country along with most politicians jumped to applaud the police and celebrate a “quick delivery of justice”. It hardly seems to matter that the police are not meant to be the justice delivering authority. This definitely works for the cops who have gotten rid of a political hot potato and copped out of having to carry out a detailed investigation or having to prove guilt in a court of law. Since the police involved are now being lauded as heroes, no one is asking how they show no shame in having allowed their weapons to be taken from them by men under custody.

 Is this the new way forward? And will this method of justice delivery be applied even to politicians and their ilk who have also been accused of similar crimes? Shouldn’t the extra judicial methodology be equal for all?

 The topping on this mess of a sordid tale is an advisory of dos and don’ts issued by the Hyderabad police to women. It would be pathetically patriarchal if it wasn’t so laughable. The sad part is that the police seem to think that all the points in the advisory like “stay away from isolated areas” have never ever occurred to women at all. What about ensuring isolated areas are safe for women instead of  just falling short of telling women to observe purdah and stay at home?

 The courts and lawyers are not devoid of blame either. They show incredible alacrity and willingness, at all times of day and night, to hear urgently the political, big ticket cases, but cannot find the inclination to dispose of cases where some girl or woman has been brutally raped and killed. Such cases are usually relegated to the back of the list after admission in appeal. Since the families of these victims do not have the clout to push for urgent hearings, the cases lie forgotten, gathering the dust of oblivion. They are dusted off and talked about for a few days only when another shocking incident happens and then consigned back to the list of forgotten cases.  If anything, the incident in Hyderabad has really proved that delaying justice will only allow it to be hijacked since the public’s patience is wearing very thin. In this age of instant everything, justice delivery cannot afford to take ten years.

 Hardly surprising that bananas are one of the most popular fruits of the Indian Republic, since everything seems to be heading that way. 

A Vanilla Fantasy

282848C4-470A-4E5F-97C6-A0DE8BA0BD5D Fantasy readers are not occasional readers, they are usually obsessive and read a lot. As a result they have a thing about books. So when you have a fantasy book which starts off set in  a “Great library” where magical books and grimoires are stored, studied, protected and kept under control – the reader is sold on just the idea. Add to that, the protagonist is an orphan brought up in the library and is described as having “ink and parchment flowing through her veins” and the whole thing becomes deliciously bookish. One is even willing to overlook the fact that the library with its live books with personalities, some requiring to be chained down due to being dangerous, seems straight out of a Terry Pratchett book.

 Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, is a stand alone novel  about libraries and their wardens, dangerous grimoires that can transform into malefics (monsters), sorcerers and their demon familiars. Put like that it all sounds rather dark but this is a book meant for the younger YA audience. Elisabeth Scrivener has grown up in one of the Great Libraries, having been deposited on the doorstep as a baby. An apprentice librarian, Elizabeth aims to become a warden of the library. When her  library comes under threat and the director of the library is murdered, Elizabeth is initially accused of the crime and sent away. She is subsequently exonerated and ends up uncovering a plot by someone in power. She ends up joining forces with a sorcerer, Nathaniel Thorn and his demon familiar Silas.

 As stories go, the premise was good, but each character was too much like someone in another book. There was a feeling of familiarity throughout the book, as if we had met these characters somewhere before. Margaret Rogerson seems to have been inspired to a large extent by Diana Wynne Jones and the book feels like a pale shadow. We know it has received rave reviews elsewhere but we found it merely nice and not much beyond that. The ending was perhaps a little longer than necessary. Fifty or so pages could have easily have been chopped off. At least we read it, which is more than we can say about Rogerson’s first book, An Enchantment of Ravens, which one of us gave up on a third of the way through and the other couldn’t even start. But what do we know? We may be older than the intended audience for these books.

More than the hype

EC37F09E-B0A9-4897-9722-489459CE25C2  Margaret Atwood wrote the Handmaid’s Tale some thirty odd years ago. The book did well and we read it  about twenty years back and admired the story, the writing and the concept of it. That was that until a few years ago someone decided to make a TV series out of the book. We scratched our heads and said “Really? Is it translatable onto the screen?” But it seems that not only was it adaptable for the telly but suddenly the concept of the story struck a chord in this day and age when women are increasingly fed up with getting the short end of the stick. So the Handmaid’s Tale became an overnight television sensation and reached a much wider audience than it had done on first being published. Perhaps it was this or her involvement with the script refreshing the story for her, Margaret Atwood decided the time was right for a sequel – hence The Testaments.

  The Handmaid’s Tale, despite being a book well ahead of its time, did not win the Booker prize so when The Testaments did we thought, unjustly so, that it was all the hype which perhaps influenced the Booker committee into giving Margaret Atwood a joint prize (the first ever) along with Bernadine Evaristo for her book Girl, Woman, Other. All in all a female dominated Booker. We had a bit of a mental block as a result about reading The Testaments but ended up reading it because it was all over the place and not because we had much hope for it. We are now busy eating humble pie since the book is truly deserving of our idea of the Booker, which means it was eminently readable with a wonderful story, beautifully told with flowing prose. At no point did we feel we had to make an effort to read it.

  Even though the book is set some years after the Handmaid’s Tale, we learn a lot more about the setting up of the theocratic state of Gilead and how the women involved adjusted to being devoid of any constitutional rights. There are a few characters in common with the earlier book though the story can be read independently. There is redemption in this book for some characters and their motivations explained. We don’t want to say much as almost everything we would want to say feels like a spoiler. This is a book for our times and perhaps a message that revenge truly is a dish best served cold.

  The Testaments is so craftily written that even though it does not follow a straight line narrative, it all comes together so well. But again, we don’t know how it would be possible to adapt it for television, It’s almost as if Margaret Atwood decided to throw the scriptwriters a challenge to do with this book what they can.

Self discovery in Norway

994BEAB8-2874-4C58-B6A3-50CF7BD1BB1C.jpeg

 We were given a review copy of Kamalini Natesan’s coming of age story, Naked Beneath the Midnight Sun, and dived straight into it. What we found interesting was that stories of self-discovery usually involve the protagonist moving from a small town to a larger city. But Kamalini has taken the benefit of a Bengali Indian heritage and her own experiences in Norway to tell the story of young Suchu (Suchareeta) Bagchi who moves from a metropolitan city, Delhi, in the mid 1980’s, to do a gap year at a college in the small town of Vestby, outside Oslo in Norway. The college is a melting pot of students from across the world and Suchu, who has never been away from home before, has to learn to deal with not just the local culture but with people from around  the world.  Not a girl who is easy to understand, her complex personality provides the reader with a very different perspective. Suchu’s mix of naivety and self possession are an interesting juxtaposition through which the reader sees her experiences.

 Suchu comes across as a shy girl who is constantly looking for ways to discover the world around her and have new experiences. Being in a place very few Indians have visited before, she thrives on the attention she gets for her dusky looks and for the simple fact that she is a novelty. For this very reason she is invited by many of her classmates to visit their homes in different parts of Norway and spend holidays with them. Through her journeys across Norway, Suchu makes friends, learns about its food and falls in love with this uniquely quiet and beautiful country. Whilst at the same time, being away from home, for the first time, she also discovers herself and what she wants for herself. As quite often happens, the distance from home helps Suchu explore new relationships as well as provide her with a new perspective on her relationships back home.

 The narrative is very descriptive and one can’t help but feel the author’s love for Norway and the experiences she herself gathered whilst staying in the country.

 Our one grouse is that the story could have done with tighter and sharper editing which would have then made it a  much smoother read. However, this a book that will definitely appeal to the younger generation who feel tied down by their roots and are chafing against the restraints of home to head out and explore the world.

A writers tone

8F1C03AF-F101-4D45-8917-14D4D9D392DB From the very first book of her’s that we read, we have loved Diana Wynne Jones unabashedly. It never really mattered to us that she was primarily a children’s writer because like all true writers her books always had something for everyone. It also helped that first book we had read was Howl’s Moving Castle, in itself an iconic fantasy book. We have since introduced a number of people to Howl and there is not a single person who hasn’t enjoyed the book, age no bar. From Howl we moved on to the Daelmark quartet  and then the Chrestomanci series. Who can deny the appeal of a character so self assured and with the most fabulous dressing gowns! Then there are DWJ’s female protagonists who are some of the most practical and down to earth ones to be found in fantasy novels. So DWJ’s passing away was quite a wrench for us as readers. We didn’t immediately read her last book – The Islands of Chaldea– published posthumously and apparently finished by her sister Ursula Jones. It is always a nice thought to have that one book by a beloved author, as yet unread.

 Recently, we finally gave in to temptation and decided it was high time we read the Islands of Chaldea. The story line is very much one written by Diana Wynn Jones – Aileen is the niece of the Wisdom (wise woman) on the island of Skarr, which is one of the three islands that constitute Chaldea. Aileen herself is the Wisdom in training, waiting for that certain experience to happen for her initiation to be complete and for her to come into her full magic powers. At some point in the past, the High King’s son was abducted by the neighbouring kingdom of Logra, which had also put up a barrier between Chaldea and itself so that no one could reach it. The High King of Chaldea cobbles together a motley group to breach the barrier and rescue the prince. As per a prophecy the expeditionary party had to have at least one person from each of the islands of Chaldea. This means that Aileen’s aunt, Beck, being the Wisdom, along with Aileen as her apprentice, end up going from island to island meeting and collecting characters before their final push at the barrier. Along the way there are magical creatures, spoilt princes, assorted donkeys, bards that sing beauty into the landscape (we need one of those very desperately over here), mad queens, lazy kings and possibly a goddess. All the ingredients for a DWJ fantasy potboiler!

 So here is the thing – readers invariably come to know an author’s style of writing very well. There is that certain inexplicable something that the reader comes to expect, a certain comfort and satisfaction that the book is the one you were looking for and which only that particular author can deliver. Take for example J K Rowling – the Harry Potter books are very different from the Cormoran Strike books of the same author. Despite being completely different genres, there is that particular style of writing that the reader can identify. It’s almost like an old, comfortable chair that you smoothly fit into and are familiar with all the lumps and contours. So, even though the publisher made it abundantly clear that The Islands of Chaldea is a book that Diana Wynn Jones had almost completed and the very last bit was completed by her sister, as readers we felt that at best a premise and a rough draft is what they had worked with. Because, despite wanting it so much to be that perfect book, we found the lumps unfamiliar. This is not to say that The Islands Of Chaldea should not be read, it’s a typical DWJ story that one can imagine, she would have developed, given the time, with her usual aplomb.