Monday, November 25, 2013

Kaurava: Excellent Addition to the Aryavarta Chronicles

Kaurava is the middle book of the Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy by Krishna Udayasankar. Her debut, Govinda exploded onto the Indian fiction scene sometime last year ending up as a national bestseller – I was extremely impressed by the depth and quality of this debut – having called it a gem from our rich mytho-history polished and lit up in perhaps different colors from what we are used to, but dazzling and radiant as always. 

Krishna had opened the floodgates with Govinda. And now Mahabharata, the sweeping ambitious epic of all times, has become a central focus of a lot many authors. There are a lot many books out there that deal with different subjects of Mahabharata and this gargantuan epic still has room for more. But the Aryavarta Chronicles truly dazzles. It is not so much as a retelling but a soaring triumph of unfettered imagination built on pain-staking research and penned in a confident poetic prose that delights and transports you to far-away conflicted lands of erstwhile Bharat-varsha. 

Enough said, before this becomes a foaming-at-the-mouth-fan-boy-blubbering, I will try and give you an objective review of the second book in the series.

Book two, Kaurava (Oh by the way, look at that gorgeous cover!) picks up where Govinda ended. With the revelation that Govinda Shauri himself is a FireWright. (For those of you blinking at what is a FireWright, do yourself a big favour and read Book One.) Book two events take a while to get rolling and Krishna successfully mires the original plot of Firewrights vs FirstBorns at play in book one into a confusing muddle of interconnected plots with the introduction of bit players, chief among them being the Secret Keeper of the Firewrights. Govinda’s dreams of a united Aryavarta under Emperor Dharma are set to be realized. But greed, jealousy and avarice are not to be denied. Devala Asita, one of the main antagonists of book one is still at large and the Kings around the Empire are now in a weapons race using the FireWrights technology for dominion. Order starts crumbling and Dharma and his four brothers along with Empress Panchali are cast out into the wild – chiefly due to the blind reasonless obstinacy of Dharma to stick to his dated morals about the Divine Order and his weakness for gambling. The thirteenth year of the exile, things come to head over the Kingdom of Matsya – from where the entire series had first started. Age old secrets tumble, Kings vie for the possession of a newer refined form of technology and a curse that holds sway over generations in that desert kingdom is about to lifted. But Suyyodhan and his vassals are not content to sit tight on the side-lines and watch. The lines are drawn and sides are being chosen over what might come now. For now, the Kauravas go to war. And one man, Govinda Shauri, the orchestrator of all these moving plots goes head to head with his erstwhile friend, the Secret Keeper of the FireWrights to achieve the impossible.

Suyyodhan and Dharma are the central characters in this book, as the title suggests. It’s a revelatory in-depth examination of these two Kaurava brothers to understand what makes them tick. One is torn by his painful need to uphold the ideals of a Divine Order on earth where the FirstBorns are meant to rule and so consumed by this misplaced sense of morality and righteousness in a world that has moved on, he is even ready to turn a blind to the most horrendous of crimes. The other, an able administrator and usually a cold and rational man, is conflicted and disturbed by the spiraling meltdown of morality of his own brothers and friends, is forced to take up the mantle of righteousness and fight a war that is not his own. It’s a fantastic character-study of two earnest and multi-layered characters and Krishna’s research and prose shines it up to a sparkle in this book.

What happened to Govinda and Panchali you ask? The star-crossed lovers find meaning through torture, distance and painful sacrifice. They withstand the trials of time, settling into the roles of Earth & Essence(“Together we are life and death, creation and destruction, we are the cosmos. We are complete.”) It is a lovely depiction of this ethereal relation that defies a name. Your favorite characters from book one are all back. Shikandin, Aswattamma, Sanjaya, Partha, Dhristyadhyumn with the introduction of more interesting ones – Abhimanyu, Uttara, General Keechak, the vile pair of Jayadrath and Dushassana etc. It’s a crackerjack assembly of such and more. While Govinda still gets the lion share of face time, for me, this book was mainly about the two elder Kauravas.

Krishna writes with an earthy intensity – frenetic and furious with a passion that you as a reader cannot help but revel in. Be it the harrowing scene of Panchali being dragged across the Halls of Indraprastha (that is plain brutal and would make you cringe). The monologue of Panchali is possibly a clever foil that Krishna uses to question the meltdown of societal values in today’s real world, exhorting us to believe and respect the moral codes that make us human. Or be it the pirates-of-the-Caribbean-moments during that pitched sea-battle between Dwaraka and the incoming hordes of enemy ships lead by Saubha King. Excellent naval battle action set piece that is drawn out in some fine detail. Or the adrenaline rush of whirling kicks and intense sword fights between the mercenary assassins and (..hold your breath..)Govinda!

Krishna’s writing is like wine. Matured and tasting sweeter with time.  While the story does take its time to get going (The narrative momentum sucks you in like a giant suction-pump after the dice are cast and Dharma loses the gamble, around page 90’s and then its ‘Buckle your Seatbelt, Dorothy ‘coz Kansas is going bye-bye’ all the way until the breath-taking climax.) I am more than happy with the pacing. No real quibbles this time. Sure, Krishna stretches your imagination and credibility with some plot points (Uttara, you feisty little thing! I loved this character and the neat little twist that Krishna has achieved with her. I wish she had stretched out that teasing love story between Uttara and Abhimanyu)

I frankly was holding off reading this book as I didn’t want to get disappointed with a sophomore-slump, placeholder-second-in a-trilogy-book phenomenon that just extends the plot and sets up the story further for a good ending. Don’t get me wrong. Kaurava does all this well – setting up things for an explosive climax in the third book, aptly named “Kurukshetra” for the eighteen-day war between the cousin brothers. But what this book does and does really well is to create a rip-roaring ride of action and intrigue that draws us so much into this crumbling world of the Aryavarta. As I said before, it is not so much as a re-telling but a true rendition of top notch fantasy writing – expanding this wonderful world of Aryavarta, creating such unforgettable morally complex characters and adding dollops of swashbuckling action to sweeten the whole deal.

Let the conches blow. Let there be war.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Comparing Notes on Writing Epic Fantasy and More...

Mark Lawrence (Broken Empire, remember that vicious sociopath the charmer, Prince Jorg, who is slowly growing up fulfill his destiny built on broken bones? interviews Bradley P Beaulieu (The acclaimed author of the russo-inspired fantasy series, Lays of Anuskaya full of political intrigue and one of the finest wrought magic systems I've read!)

What is the big deal ?

It pays to listen to these two gentlemen who have cut thier teeth on writing and almost perfected that art of expanding the genre fiction; not to mention, in that process, having given us two of the most fantastic trilogies ever written in today's fantasy fiction. They exchange thoughts on writing, the publishing industry, book trailers and lots more exciting stuff that any true blue speculative fiction junkie should care two hoots about.

I have read the first two books of the Broken Empire and consider it to be a modern day classic. Its dark, twisted and disturbingly fearsome in some sense but its finely written fantasy at its best with the masterful sublime prose elevating its stature from getting mired down in the dark somberness of its tone and rendering it as memorable trilogy. I have heard the ending beats the rest two and then there is Prince of Fools on it's way. Hooray!

Bradley P Bealieu is a brave man. to have taken the path very few have taken and veering off the quasi-medieval comfort-zone fantasy tropes to give us the unknown freezing mountainous Russia, ancient Persia and Ottaman Turkish that form the basis for an inspired & magical tale of high adventure that clean knocks the ball out of the park with its first outing and continues to build up to excellence with the rest two. I thoroughly enjoyed book one and will definitely be wrapping up his series. And now I look forward to his highly anticipated desert-based series, called The Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.

So here are the two gentlemen going at it. Its good banter, trust me.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fade to Black: An Ordinary Urban Fantasy Debut

Fade to Black, is a 2013 Orbit debut by Francis Knight, first in a trilogy that features Rojan Dizon, a "Pain-Mage". Interestingly, Orbit has a back-to-back publishing schedule with this trilogy with the second in the series, Before the Fall is already out in the market while the third is poised to hit the stands in Jan 2014.

Urban fantasy has never been my cup of cake. Sexy smart eighteen-year old college kids who never fit in to normal societies and then one day discover that they are in fact the last of a race and are invested with powers unimaginable and turn into hot hunky(male) or smoking hot (female) vampires toting shiny black guns caught in a war between angels and werewolves and in the process also discover that their secret crush is a member of the opposite gang ( take your pick: Faerie, Angel, Werewolf, Vampire). Does he or she save the world and also get to happily-ever-after with their heart-sworns?  < aaaaaarrrrghhhh >

Happy to let you know that Fade to Black steers clear away of this stereotype and brings to the table a host of ideas - new or inspired is up for debate - all headed by a snarky self obsessed smooth talking first person narrative anti-hero who tries hard to be likeable despite his myriad flaws.

Rojan is your typical bounty-hunter anti-hero who loathes responsibilities, loves his cash, women and booze and firmly believes in stuff like men aren't made for monogamy and never cross the Ministry. He lives in the city of Mahala,  a strange place where the city grows upwards instead of horizontally  streets upon streets, buildings upon buildings at different levels. He lives somewhere between the Sky, the topmost level populated by the rich and politically savvy and the Pits, where the good-for-nothings rot.And he gets by with the odd job of retrieving lost or kidnapped people and not meddling into the affairs of others.

He craves this existence in this world for a reason: A world where magic is banned and he is a pain-mage: magic triggered off by pain. Until it becomes personal and his niece is kidnapped - his brother's desperate plea to get her back that he cannot turn down.

It's a fun book. No!! I mean it, really. It's a quick read and presents an intriguing magic system that you cannot help but discover. Magic from pain.

You've seen Rojan before. Too much of a smooth-talker for his own good and always getting into trouble that he grudgingly takes up for the sake of others. rough around the edges and not able to keep a woman and yet always falling for the wrong ones. and most importantly, one who doesn't know his own potential.
And yet, I didn't feel put off and it was easy enough being inside his head - Francis does a good job of making him accessible, interesting and well...unpredictable to a certain extent.

It just seems that Francis, trying to be inside a chauvinistic male's head, tries too hard and this effort kinda falls flat on its face. Her prose, while inspired enough, does smack of being irregular and the initial intrigue soon gives away and starts to drag and feel leaden. especially the middle parts of the book when Rozan our dauntless PI goes down into the pits to retrace and find out whereabouts of his niece and discovers a global conspiracy. < Face-Palm>

The best spark of imagination is the city of Mahala. While not original,  < The City by Stella Gemmell, City's son by Tom Pollock, A City of Dreams And Nightmares by Ian Whates > a shining star of the book is the squalid city that rises up to different levels and each level is demarcated by the different types of the social strata that inhabits that level. the lurid details of the Pits and the dreary desultory denizens of the lowest levels are well defined and written.
In terms of characterization, it's Rojan Dizon all the way and we see him evolve from being that good-for-nothing self obsessed snarky bastard into someone who is willing to shoulder and take responsibility for his actions (The power of Louve!). We see this miles before the end of the book but it's been done rather nicely. The side characters are too flat and single-dimension. I saw hopes for Jake, the fighter woman whose destiny is closely entwined with that of Rozan but she never gets fleshed out like she deserves.

All in all, a paint-by-numbers debut that ticks all those things that should  go into a good book but fades with time. Three-stars for a fast read.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thor (The Dark World): Movie Review

Countdown to the Avengers-II: Age of Ultron has begun.
While Iron-Man leads the race as usual, this time, Marvel has rehashed the God of Thunder, Thor in a slightly more darker, grittier outing than the last avatar. Does it score? Well yes and no. Thor being the invincible God that he is has a much steeper climb as compared to say, Tony Stark, whose box-office outing clicked this time sorely because of his human, vulnerable flawed side that came to the fore. We cannot say that much for the Hammer-wielding angry crown-prince who’s got daddy-issues, doesn’t trust his brother and pretty much has a geek goddess with a penchant for always falling into trouble, to deal with. Not to mention the Dark Lord of Elves who is obsessed with – no points in guessing – destroying the universe

Thor: The Dark World has Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman reprise their original roles of the star-crossed lovers – Thor, the crown prince of Asgard and protector of the Nine realms of the world and Jane Foster – the geeky astrophysicist who can’t stay out of trouble and love.  And while Natalie has precious much nothing to do other than run around with a GPS tracker, Chris brings in the full force of charisma behind the invincible God to perhaps save the movie. 

The prologue tells the story of the Dark Elves led by their snarling Lord Malekith who plans to use the “Aether” to snuff out the Nine Realms and return the dark to rule this universe. But his bids are thwarted and the Aether safely buried at an unknown location.
Cut to the present where life goes on its normal axis: Thor continues to roam the Nine realms, bringing peace and protection to the citizens while Jane continues to sulk and pine in the hope of meeting that hulking hammer-wielding handsome stranger from outer space. All good and hunky-dory so far. Until Jane starts getting weird signals on her outer-space signal tracking device ( I have no idea what that was. Some kinda Universal GPS for Thor and other visitors from the other realms?) And identifies a black hole zone where soda-cans, beer bottles and car keys disappear when thrown into. With her penchant for getting into trouble, Jane gets entangled with the long-buried Aether (There are apparently seven Infinity stones in the universe – we already know of two, don’t we? Tesseract and Aether both with world shattering powers. We can imagine a reboot of the Marvel Series with all the rest five coming into play later on. Groans!) That triggers a universal chain of events – starting with the re-awakening of dark elves (long thought to be extinct, DUH!) as well as Thor’s re-emergence on  Earth. Cataclysmic events unfold after that with the narrative pitching into the dark side of metaphysics and gravity.

Thor-II as the name suggests (The dark world) takes a detour through dark, gritty lands set in the Nine Realms but the saving grace are the moments of levity brought on by the self-obsessed snarky character of Loki, Thor’s brother – Tom Hiddleston reprising his role with a delightful glee. He steals the show in this outing – clearly scoring over other heavyweights like Anthony Hopkins (Odin, the brooding King of Asgard with too much on his plate) or Idris Alba (Playing the Heimdall, the Guardian of the Pathway called Bifrost)– court-jester extraordinaire.  Adding to the humour are Kat Dennings (The girl from Two Broke Girls?) and Stellan Skarsgard who return to the screen as Jane’s intern and mentor respectively and have quite a few funny moments.  In fact I felt there was an over-push on the humour element to leaven what would be otherwise a pretty loaded dark action-movie. The occasional smart-alecky quip even in the middle of an intense gravity and physics-defying climactic action piece? Come on!

The other great thing about the Thor-II is that the movie is a visual banquet: CGI Effects galore giving us colourful glimpses of the Nine Realms especially the Bifrost or the Pathway through the Realms. Be it the Star-Trek inspired stunning flying spaceship chase sequences or a Harry-Potterisque photobook that gives us a moving storyboard of the Dark Elves – all of this is partly magical and fully awe-inspiring.  But throughout all this mind boggling rich stunning visuals, we still have that nagging feeling that maybe they went overboard on the magical visuals to cover up for a lackadaisical plodding plot? But it truly doesn’t matter as you settle down and join the fun in an explosive climax – full of twisting, harrowing gravity-defying leaps from one world to the other as physics and all laws of nature go haywire in the brief time that the Nine realms converge and align with each other.

There is no emotional turmoil or the angst-ridden edge of the seat tension that gripped you for the Iron-Man-3 movie. This one’s devoid of sharp edges but it’s a rollicking ride all the way. Set aside your misconceptions and give in to the comic-book sensibilities that define this movie franchise. Thor is an angry god with issues galore but you cannot ignore his Mjolnir as it shatters and cleaves its way through an army of the dark elves and elevates your senses to a fun-laden grandiose spectacle with an inspired visual design and a healthy dose of action-sequences.

Feel like you can’t get enough of the Marvel Universe? Hold your horses because if the post-credits teaser is any indication, then we aren’t done with the Infinity matters yet! And well, there is the next Captain America: Winter Soldier round the corner and you always have the Agents of Shield on television bridging the gaps for you. Marvel Overdose. But hey, who’s complaining?