They came for us in the night and shot my father through the skull.
From the get go Tanaz Bhatena’s latest fantasy novel, there is no escaping the brutality in this medieval inspired ancient land. Bearing witness to her parents’ murder, Gul is forced on the run and must reflect on her destiny.
Their murderers are Ambar’s ruling king Lohar’s special forces who must kill any girl child born with a star shaped birthmark. The ancient prophecy predicts a young magus girl with a star shaped birthmark will vanquish the King. Gul’s family was on the move for much of her life and with her magical powers temperamental at best, Gul remains skeptical about being the fabled Star Warrior. Revenge, however is a more tangible goal to get behind as she seeks to avenge their deaths.
A chance meeting with the fearless women of the Sisterhood of the Golden Lotus (inspired by the real life Gulabi Gang) leads Gul to fall in with these rebel women training in the art of weaponry and magic to fight against King Lohar’s repressive regime. Seeking to enter the King’s palace she secures the help of a young stable hand Cavas. Weighed down by his back breaking work, his father’s chronic illness and condemned to a life in the polluted tenements in the outskirts of the city, Cavas bristles between resentment and desperation.
As their lives and fates intertwine, the story unfolds from their alternating points of view, readers get to experience a unique Indian fantasy gilded with lush prose. Bhatena uses the power of her words to build the majestic Svapnalok (Dreamworld) Here each natural element of sky (Ambar), earth (Prithvi), fire (Jwala) and water (Samudra) denotes a kingdom with a harmonious past but corruption, tyranny and the Great War resulted in an uneasy peace with underlying political tensions.
She leans on Hindu and Persian mythology to create a pantheon of Gods, Goddesses and Prophets that preach the Code of Asha (peace) to live by. However, she also doesn’t shy away from portraying a deeply hierarchical society where the magus yield more power and influence than the non-magus. Her descriptions of the tenements, the violence against non-magus women and the treatment of ‘dirt-lickers’ echo in the ghettoized, misogynistic, casteist India of today. This, as well as the chemistry and romance between the main protagonists is where Bathena is most successful.
Where she is not, is in the uneven pacing. Plot points come across as contrived and the lack luster magic too convenient. A young and naïve Gul becomes a street-smart charlatan with the turn of the page. One minute she’s deep in training the next she’s run away to a slave auction, she’s playing the dutiful servant and then conveniently lands into the forbidden part of the palace. Good luck and being saved by others once too often make Gul a rather flat character. However, since this is the first in a telling of a two-part tale, perhaps there is a growth arc she must follow. Cavas, on the other hand fares better and his struggles seem more relatable and the exposition of his back story and dark secrets is more organically exposed.
Still, the book is a great addition to Indian inspired fantasy novels and just the joy of the diversity in the day to day experiences of the characters in the foods they eat, how they dress, a turn of phrase and how their homes are anointed is a real mirror to many South Asian experiences. In a world of growing tyranny who doesn’t need an inspired resistance read?
Read an interview with author Tanaz Bhatena on death as a muse