Monday, November 28, 2011

The Iron Tooth

The latest entrant in the children’s fiction genre, Prithvin Rajendran’s ‘The Iron Tooth’ is a tale of fantasy and adventure set in the fictional land of Goodabaiya. The book begins by narrating the story of a young girl, unmarried and pregnant. She is thrown out of her home and makes a new home for herself at the foothills of the Mala Mountains, where few people dare to live. When she gives birth on a dark stormy night, she has two babies – one human and one troll.
The girl’s story that forms the prologue of the book is then linked to the events in the story at the end. Meanwhile Chapter 1 opens with the story of Dashter, a great and mighty kingdom ruled first by a good king, Dashtum and then by his equally strong but evil son, Darum.
King Darum is hated by his people who repeatedly rebel against his unfair and tyrannical practices. Darum does not really care for the opinion of his people, he is happy to enjoy the luxuries of being the most powerful man in the kingdom.
Princess Nova, Darum’s eldest child, is exactly like her father – arrogant, selfish and rude. When she insults the master magician, Faerum, he curses the entire kingdom of Dastur and imprisons Nova for the rest of her life.
The book then introduces us to the kingdom of Greatix, which is also the home of our protagonist, Princix and his family. Setting out on an adventurous quest for fame and wealth, Princix, who is both kind and brave, wins magical weapons that help him to become the Champion General for the kingdom of Greatix.
Princix’s first duty as Champion General is to find out who has cursed the neighboring kingdom of Dastur and help them lift the curse. To this end he sets out with two other Imperial Guards, Candelbre and Hammil. How Princix fulfills his quest and discovers the all-important iron tooth, (from which the novel gets its title), forms the rest of the story.
The story begins rather slowly, but becomes more readable as it devolves into the customary framework of fairy tales - that is, sending off a hero to a quest, in the course of which he also finds out about an imprisoned Princess and chivalrously decides to rescue her.
Other elements that help create the fairy tale atmosphere include the hero who does not know his own heritage, the sage who foretells the destruction of the kingdom and its resurrection by a stranger, an evil magician who will curse the kingdom, the Princess who will directly or indirectly cause the trouble, brothers who are jealous of their youngest brother who is vastly more successful, grateful strangers giving magical weapons in return for help rendered… all well entrenched examples from popular fairy tales. Rajendran has faithfully followed the fairy tale genre to give us a tale full of the fantastic and displays his own rich imagination and inventiveness in the process.
In the introduction to this, his first book, Rajendran tells us that his influences are the stories of mythical creatures that his mother used to tell him and the action figure toys that his dad bought for him.
The pages naturally are filled with fabulous, mythical creatures. There are vampires, trolls, Medusas, fairies from the Saxeaxs family, an immortal Custodian of the First Light, zombies, ghouls and creatures from the author’s own imagination such as the elite soldiers, the Baks.
I certainly felt that the cast of characters was overcrowded. Some of these mythical beings have very little to do in terms of furthering the plot but on the plus side, no one is going to complain that their favorite fantastic species is not mentioned in the book!
In terms of characterization, some stereotypes are inevitable because of the fairy tale genre, and do not detract from the book. I am surprised though that Rajendran was happy with such a tame portrayal of the Princess. After all, this is the 21st century, where princesses no longer sit around waiting for rescue. Quite often, they are the ones doing the rescue act so to meet someone like Nova who cannot do anything but repent her actions is a bit of an anticlimax for me!
Rajendran uses a medley of languages in the novel – there are brief snatches of various languages including one invented by the author, the language of the Bak. Both old and modern English are used throughout the book. And verse finds a prominent place in the text as well. I sometimes found the variety bewildering but the challenge may appeal to a younger audience.
In terms of plot, there is certainly completeness to the novel. The story gallops from one adventure to another, neatly picking up loose ends along the way so that by the end of the book, everything is neatly tied up. There is loving attention to detail both during the story and after the book, in the appendices which include a chronology, maps, a translation of the Bak language,Nivthrip and more.
‘The Iron Tooth’ is definitely an interesting read and I look forward to seeing how Rajendran’s next book turns out! Thanks to Blogadda for the review copy.
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sequels, prophecies ..and socialism 101

Is there a literary trope more tiresome than the prophecy? Just about every fantasy novel I’ve picked up these last few months has been about children variously marked, feared or heralded as ‘The One’ and mysterious strangers swooping in on them to convey them to their destiny. And honestly, shouldn’t ‘The One’ be picked for some reason greater than the accident of birth, or just plain being in a certain place at a certain time (aye, Boy who Lived, that means you.)? Meanwhile, what is it with prophecy-oriented stories and their inability to fit into a single tome, leaving us poor readers scrounging around bookstores and library waiting lists for Books 2 to gazillion? So I should have shied away from ‘The Midnight Charter’ which, apart from concerning itself with not one but two ‘The Ones’ is also clearly only part one of a series, meaning of course that a hundred narrative threads will be left dangling on the last page. As will I, waiting for Book 2.

Then again, when have I ever taken my own advice?

Well, for once that worked out alright since ‘ Midnight ..’ turned out to be a page turner, with a good story ,great pace and the kind of steadily darkening atmosphere that makes you simultaneously cringe and start reading faster . It is set in Agora, a grim medieval city ( imagine a very dark Lyra’s Oxford) that keeps its citizens walled in, where free trade is the reigning-and only- deity. There is no money in Agora, but anything can be bartered – emotions , children, lives (rather fittingly, murder is called ‘life theft'), even a woman’s voice. Children are considered property until they are legally emancipated at twelve, when they are left to fend for themselves, expected to improve their prospects either through marriage or slavery; the slightest hint of disapproval from their masters/ mentors could have them thrown into the streets and deemed unfit for employment. And all the while, the sinister and invisible Dictator does a Big Brother, tracking every move its denizens make.

Half dead from the plague, eleven year old Mark finds himself sold by his own father to Theophilus, the kind doctor tending to them. Nursed back to health by the doctor and Lily, a young orphan and employee of Theophilus’ grandfather, Count Stelli, Mark then begins his apprenticeship with the doctor. But fate has other plans for him; he finds himself being mentored by Stelli, a respected Agoran astrologer while Theophilus and Lily move out into the slums where they unleash a truly subversive weapon in the heart of materialistic Agora – philanthropy.

Mark narrowly escapes public humiliation after he discovers he is nothing more than a pawn in Stelli’s politicking. Rather serendipitously, Stelli’s life is destroyed while Mark inherits his wealth and becomes the toast of Agoran society, where he swiftly learns to be as unscrupulous and manipulative as his old employer. Meanwhile Lily tries to learn more about her mysterious origins even as she struggles to keep the shelter from being shut down .

Tides will turn, of course – it is only a matter of time before Mark falls out of favour with the powers that be, while Lily’s radical notion of giving away property for no reason other than the good of others, catches on and wins her many benefactors. But both children are unaware that they are part of a much larger game, overseen by shadowy figures, and that their fates are linked with that of Agora itself.

‘Midnight..’ does an interesting take on the age old Capitalism vs Socialism debate - Lily and Mark come to represent diametrically opposite points of view , and it is clear that some sort of confrontation lies ahead, even if they are allies at the end of the book. I liked the way Whitley’s characters develop, especially Mark – he goes from confused and scared waif to scheming and manipulative social climber, fuelled mostly by rage at his own abandonment. It is this angst that leads him to forge an unlikely bond with Cherubina, the infantile woman he almost weds in a marriage of convenience, and I would like to see their story evolve in future books in the series.

Rather like Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark materials’ trilogy – though nowhere as dense, pedantic or exhausting - this is a book about the death of ideas – a society based on free trade sounds ideal on paper - a …“ of a city where all are equal..where balance, barter and give and take were woven into its very heart and soul…society where value was judged by every individual and no one could force something out of nothing.” But it is, like all other great ideas, easily corrupted and how Lily and Mark either strengthen or destroy the idea of Agora remains to be seen.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Josephine Tey – Inspector Alan Grant Mysteries

Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot are both pseudonyms of Elizabeth MacKintosh. She has written 8 mystery novels between the years 1929 to 1952, five of which feature Alan Grant. A quick search on Gutenberg is sure to throw up a fair collection of novels. The first of the Alan Grant mysteries is ‘The Man in the Queue”, which did not really capture my attention. But it created just enough interest for me to pick up the second book, ‘A Shilling for Candles’ and then, I just had to find out what Grant does in the next book!

I suppose I need to mention that Tey’s books are accused of political incorrectness. There are claims that the author’s prejudices are passed on to her characters. To me, so many years removed in time, all that matters is a good mystery and on that count, Tey certainly scores high on my list.

Her detective, Alan Grant, does not astonish à la Sherlock Holmes; he does not have the flamboyance of a Poirot or the elegance of a Peter Wimsey. What he does have is ordinariness and a dogged determination to find the truth. He is an Everyman detective, albeit a clever Everyman.  

Grant is well educated, as seen from his quotes from the classics, he is conscientious and will worry over a case even after he has reached a conclusion that is acceptable to all and perfectly logical. In The Man in the Queue, for example, after arresting the man who he has believed to be the murderer and listening to his story, Grant starts to wonder if he has indeed caught the right suspect. Evidence is never infallible and often Grant persists even when no one else can see the point.

Because he is essentially a kind and fair man, Grant finds devoted hero worship from his nephew and his sergeant, Williams. And that explains Grant’s appeal – he is no awe inspiring superhero – just a nice man trying to do his job and use his powerful position to fight for the cause of justice, succeeding against difficult odds.

In the novel, 'The Daughter of Time', which is Tey’s most famous Alan Grant mystery, Grant finds himself in hospital with a broken leg. He is bored to death and has no patience with the magazines and other trivial pursuits that are commonly provided to hospital patients.

Grant has a strong belief that the face is a true mark of the man. And considers himself an expert in the art of understanding the character through studying the face. As he says,

It was a strange thing how much the meaning of a countenance depended on eyebrows. One change of degree in the angle this way or that and the whole effect was different.”

Knowing his interest, Grant’s friend, Marta Hallard, an actress, brings him some portraits to study. Grant does not recognize these people but the face that attracts his attention is that of Richard III.

Now if you know English history, then you also know that Richard III was king for only two years. He is remembered for the ignoble way he came to the throne. Richard III was supposed to the guardian of his brother’s son, Edward V, who was to be crowned king after his father’s death. Instead Richard III managed to have both of Edward 1V’s sons declared illegitimate and crowned himself as ruler. And the Princes? Why, no one saw them again, leading to speculation that Richard III had murdered them.

But when Grant looks at the portrait of Richard III, he sees not an evil murderer but a man of power, one used to both responsibility and suffering. So why is Grant’s analysis of Richard so different from what history has to say?

With the help of the ever faithful Sergeant Williams and reputed scholars, Grant investigates the true story of Richard III, so many years later, and concludes that this image of a murderer was created mainly as Tudor propaganda (with the help of dramatists like Shakespeare who portrayed the king as a power hungry despot, hunch backed and monstrous in appearance). Grant makes a persuasive case for Richard III as a brave, courageous warrior king by the end of the book.

An enjoyable book just like the rest of Tey’s mysteries.  Interesting and ingenious plots that test Grant and the reader, loving attention to detail and varied settings all written in a pleasant prose make Tey’s novels necessary reading for those of us who like mysteries.

And when you are done reading Alan Grant’s cases, do look for Tey’s other books including ‘Miss Pym Disposes’  and ‘The Franchise Affair’ – both first class mysteries!