Sunday, September 16, 2012

Govinda - Book One, Aryavarta Chronicles.

Govinda is the debut novel by Krishna Udayasankar, the first in a trilogy called Aryavarta Chronicles. I finally finished this deceptively “slim” book last week and really was impressed with the depth and quality of a debut attempt. Indian fantasy scene truly is an unexplored terrain, layered with countless beautiful astounding stories and myths, a lot of which all of us have grown up listening to. Mahabharatha is my favorite and can actually make Tolkien’s LOTR look like a pale shadow – it stands out among all epics for reasons more than one – fascinating characters, tons of back stories that loop back and forth until the complexities drive you silly and above all, the epic nature of the narrative itself spanning across time and distance. 

Krishna bases her novel against the backdrop of this grand epic and this by itself, should make her book a winner. But wait, a retelling of the tale that we’ve heard countless times? Now that’s going to be treading dangerous waters. But here’s where Krishna literally blows us away with her bold re-interpretation of this epic, exploring myriad themes of politics, gender equality, social causes weaved into an expert narrative that chugs along sweeping us into the dark murky and dangerous domains of the Aryavarta kings in this book one.

As described by the blurb, an original tale of valor, honor and vengeance, it traces the story arc of the eponymous Govinda Shouri, a simple cowherd who through a strange twist of fate and events, now leads the Yadus and is the commander of their capital city, Dwaraka. The major plot is that which pins Govinda against an ancient race of “mages” called FireWrights who are hell bent on using their ancient knowledge for destructive purposes. Into this arc is woven the parallel track of the lineage of Kurus and Pandavas who are part of the Aryavarta empire and their internal conflicts and struggle for ascendancy to power. These two plots run throughout the book with Govinda being the common thread. 

Krishna’s narrative flows like clear waters from the hill springs. It’s fresh, lucid - told in a confident, almost poetically lilting prose that elevates story-telling to a brand new high. That and the depth of tremendous research that has gone behind this book, shines through her writing. It’s almost a relief to note that Krishna’s writing is top notch, instantly setting her apart from the clutter of newbie-authors in the Indian scene today – the dam that burst with Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi’s phenomenal success with mediocre writing. The take is so unique that it draws the reader in and invests them with the fates of various characters in the story.
The world building is very detailed and engaging, taking us back through time to splendors of the kings and emperors of erstwhile “bharat”-varsh. It comes alive with Krishna’s lively prose and attention to detail – staying true even to the way of dressing (Heard of ‘Antariya’ anyone?!) and the weaponry used in the book. The one aspect of the book that struck me is the absence of Magic and Krishna’s earnest endeavors to explain the arcane with the basis of science. Very commendable, but it took away a bit of the “fantastical” elements I was looking for.
The major characters that get face time are Govinda, Panchali, Partha( Arjuna for the un-initiated), Dharma( Yudhishtra) , Dwaipanaya Vyasa (Vyasa who is long believed to be the chronicler of the entire events) and also interspersed with minor characters like Aswattamma ( one of the most creepiest characters, also one I’ve been fascinated with as he is one of the seven immortals who still walk the earth – I thought the manner in which Krishna’s dealt with Aswattamma, keeping him in the shadows and a little bit of mystery surrounding him was apt) Sanjaya ( the one blessed with ability to see the war and narrate it to Blind King Dhritharashtra – here painted in a completely different picture as disciple of Vyasa and an expert on court politics) etc.
The way the story progressed it was clear Krishna favored Panchali as a character as it’s very well etched. Strong-willed, independent and feisty – maybe giving a little too much rein to the feminist inside of Krishna (the author) – but overall a wonderfully crafted one that grows with all the conflicts that surround her. Her character is wildly in love with that of Govinda (Yeah in your face you un-believer you! Tell me that didn’t smash your rooted old B R Chopra-led beliefs of Mahabharata!! ), the undercurrents of passion and love that waits to explode in the scenes between these two are very beautifully written. Playful banter turning to some heavy duty desire. Panchali believes herself to be the unfulfilled half which completes Govinda and is firmly in love with him throughout the book. Dharma is painted as more an inept administrator who loves taking credit for the valorous feats of his brothers – indeed as is the example with his wife, Panchali who is won by Partha at the swayamvar but who cedes her to his elder brother who is equated to the head of this five-limbed being. That is correct; you’ve got to keep your older stories of Mahabharata stored up in the attic and not let that color your judgment of this tale. Coz this is told in an albeit different but engaging manner with a lot of twists to some of your favorite characters. I wasn’t complaining – I never like Dharma anyways ( grin!)
Partha – a womanizer? Did I see a lot of brows crease up? He indeed was my favorite of all the Pandavas – Alas not in the case with Krishna (the author). Partha who still remains the most gifted archer of all times, however is prone to lapse of judgment when it comes to women or even battle situations. I never ended up liking him in the book. Dwaipanaya Vyasa, who is like the most revered scholar sage, is actually a major bit player in this multi-dimensional game of thrones. I liked this spin, it was very crafty indeed of Krishna to have brought in the chronicler himself into the court intrigue and she gives him a lot of face time, however maintaining his mysterious nature. We believe him to be the puppeteer of a lot of conspiracies that is set afoot the way he is portrayed. Also written into the narrative is Suyodhan. Yeah you read that right – “SU”-yodhan and NOT Duryodhan. Surprisingly underplayed and very well in control of his emotions, quite unlike the “Puneet Issar” version we’ve grown up with in childhood. I loved this twist. They say he was an able king and they got a temple in his name in the North somewhere. Very believable.

Govinda – the titular character is probably one of the most kick-ass protagonists I’ve read. Grey. All shades of grey. Till the end of the book, Krishna maintains the mystery around him. His motives are his alone and he sets along some dangerous paths to achieve his goals. A cold and calculating devil. Not quite what I expected but I relished it all the way. Superb twist to the tropes that we’ve grown up all along. 
The book is 450 pages long and it takes up quite a bit of your attention while you stay glued. The plot twists, meanders, slows down and then ultimately explodes in the last few chapters. The writing is polished, the language lyrical. Quite a few times I got lost when Krishna expounds on the nature of politics, draws in themes of social evil and societal well-being – perhaps a bit pedantic at times. The other major grouch that I had while reading was with the POV’s – which at times kept switching in the middle of a scene – not letting me settle down into some character’s head. Also since Krishna is struggling to condense this gargantuan epic into a few hundred pages, it’s understandable that she skims a few years into few sentences.  Our loss. Especially the scenes of Partha winning the Swayamvar or maybe the abduction of Rukmini.

But we are willing to overlook this lapse. For Krishna has ultimately given us a gem from our mythologies, polished and lit up maybe in a different color perhaps, but radiant and dazzling as always. Awesome debut, you’ve got me panting for the part two now. Especially after the way book one ended.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book Updates and Cyber-Gems I Stumble Upon

Been a busy weekend - though didnt get much of reading packed in. Travel to friends' wedding, Nephew Birthday party, another friend's mom passing away and Comic Con. Barely managed to get a few hours of shut eye this weekend and hence feeling more than a little bushed out.

Good thing is I've put in a solid few hours into the delightful Govinda - a mesmerizing recounting of the stories that formed the Mahabharata -I wouldn't say this is Mahabharata itself, though of course the strong foundations on which Krishna's stories build on is undeniably India's biggest epic. But Krishna brings in her own sweet little twists, plots and counter plots spinning wheels within wheels, a dizzying array of splendidly fleshed out characters, some well known to us from childhood ( and yet with some amazing surprising twists in their character-study!) and some new ones, adding a distinct voice to this re-telling. Am still ploughing through this deceptively "slim" book that stands at 450-odd pages - discovering rather unearthing startling revelations about a lot of my favorite characters from Mahabharata. But I stand by my original assessment - this ain't a retelling. it's an original tale of valor, honor and vengeance - told in a confident, almost poetically lilting prose that elevates story telling to a brand new high. I will write a complete review once am through but it's definitely got those big claws firmly entrenched into me for now.

On other things - not related to reading - while scouting the net, the name Jay Kristoff sprang out to me from nowhere and I ended up reading the first three chapters of his upcoming book, Stormdancer, Lotus Wars # 1. Simply spell binding!! Here I leave you with a cover art for his book and lots of prayers to "Blood Gods" that in the next twist of fate and the roll of dice, I land up with signed ARC copy for the Stormdancer. While we're anyway wishing for the Middle Earth dominion, why not wish for better things huh? Like a publishing contract with the Big 5 in the fantasy scene in the US ? * Dry Chuckle and shake of head *

So feast on this bloody brilliant cover featuring Yukiko, the kick-ass'est protagonist from Kristoff's debut.( Did I say debut? ..ahem some people are born with all the friggin' talent and luck in the wurruld huh? )

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Country is going to bleed RED !!!

So are  you RED-DDYYY ???

Sorry - couldn't help it, but the world knows I am a big fan of Mr. Abercrombie - the God of Gritty Fantasy and all things bloody and gory in today's literary fantasy :D Without confusing you guys anymore, I am happy to announce that Joe's next book, The Red Country coming out soon AND you, my lucky reader, are getting a chance to wallow in his blood soaked literary landscape right here: (Grin - I sometimes hate myself for sounding so pompous, but I cant help it when I am talking about one of my recent favorite authors )

They burned her home. 
They stole her brother and sister. 
                But vengeance is following.

 Read an Excerpt on his blog and you decide -

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Passage: A Winning Heady Concoction of Horror, SF and Post-Apocalyptic

I finished the much-hyped Passage by Justin Cronin last week. What did I feel about it? 

I felt spent. Drained. Exultant that I finally have been inducted into the elite few who now know for certain, what lies beyond the passage. A tad bit frustrated with the ending. But aglow with a sense of achievement for having conquered this monster. Monster it truly is – what with being compared to a weapon to ward (literally strike out at the effing vampire using this 800-pages tome, LOL) off evil in some remote villages of Romania – this book has definitely had some brickbats coming its way – but all things considered, Justin Cronin has a winner here. 

Some amazingly drawn out characters whom you fall in love with, brilliant evocative prose, stunning action set-pieces – all backing up an “intelligent” vampires book. Mind numbing Horror, Intelligent Science Fiction, Bleak Post-Apocalyptic, dark Western – you may fit the book into all these genres and not be wrong. The manner in which he weaves in and out of the various themes is effortless and this speaks for his skills as a writer – setting up a masterpiece that defies your imagination, at the same time feeds it and fires it up like nothing else. This genre bending piece of fiction is definitely up there among my Best Reads of 2012. I couldn’t have timed this right, the part-2 called Twelve is coming out in October this year. (Gleeful smile!)

Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte.

I was swept away into this gale storm right from this opening. I mean, who wouldn’t right? He’s throwing us a bait the size of biggest goddamnest wriggling worm, juicy and hanging in there tantalizingly close – just waiting for us to take that plunge. A girl who lived for a thousand years? The Girl from Nowhere? The First and Last and Only? My brain juices just blew up in anticipation. Hook, line and sinker.
Part one still remains the best written parts of the book – where Cronin patiently sets up the premise for the world apocalypse – detailing the dreadful experiments by the US Army in search of the perfect cure using a virus they first come across in the jungles of Bolivia– a word here, we all have seen this before – but the manner in which Cronin lays out the events – making it disturbingly personal, getting right inside the heads of the experimenters, the victims – is just amazing and we never see the blow coming and so when it comes and when hell breaks loose, you’re as tongue-tied and helpless as a wet rat caught in the middle of blinding blizzard. But even this is not what makes it so good. Cronin slowly cranks up the tension through the POV of three different characters– as different from each other as any – yet all tied up together in an inexplicable manner.
Wologast, an FBI agent, estranged from his wife, smooth talking perfect salesman for the job- the “Job” being recruiting the latest human subjects for the experiments. And without exception, these are the lowly scums of the earth, death row inmates – cold ruthless men spending their time in jail for heinous murder crimes. The time where we see Wologast – he’s in Texas to recruit the twelfth man, Anthony Carter. We switch over to Carter – a timid, almost timorous man who’s blanked out his mind to the memories of the crime – it’s amazing how Cronin delves right into the deepest blackest corners of the human mind and brings it up to light, making us empathize with the characters. The third POV is that of Sister Lacey who comes in contact with the small six-year old Amy and that’s when her life is blown out its normal tracks. For she realizes that this girl is not any ordinary child. Wologast’s next mission is Amy herself and that’s when the man has a massive change of mind. They go on the run to evade the army. And the story just shoots out of the gate from there on. The scenes where the experiments go wrong and the massacre at the base when the subjects transformed into super vampires go on a rampage is so viscerally painted out that it sears into your brains. Cronin doesn’t hold it back and lets it rip. 

Part Two picks up approximately hundred years after the events of the break out. 92 a.v – After Virus I presume. Centering on the Last City or Human Community held up somewhere in California. This was like plodding up a steep ravine, your legs stuck in mire. Cronin takes his time explaining the whole set up, throws a multitude of characters at you and goes deep into their lives in this community. Post- Apocalyptic survivors, living like in the Westerns. Ones that stand out definitely were Peter Jaxton, a young man destined for greatness but who just doesn’t know it right away and his fraternity rivalry with elder brother Theo, Alicia Donado the feisty tempestuous girl who nurses a secret herself and is probably the best Eyes that the Watch has. Little things stand out – in terms of details of how the entire community is living within Walled Boundaries and has a “Watch” in the nights against raids by the vampires. In fact the watch cry, “All Eyes” sent shivers down my spine. In anticipation of the possible horrors. A bunch of other characters – all real and well fleshed out with back stories to boot. This is probably the slowest part of the whole book. But trust me it’s all worth the wait.
Part Three is when Amy – the Girl from Nowhere - walks into their camp, things start going downhill and really fast. A group sets out on an ill-fated travel trying to unravel Amy’s secret. And THAT is what lies beyond the Passage. The conflicts and set pieces sometimes reads like a movie – melodramatic and just too well choreographed, but heck – I would LOVE this book to be made into a full blown Technicolor riot on the big screen. Heard Ridley Scott.
I probably haven’t got it right in terms of the parts – Cronin has painstakingly differentiated the enormous narrative into many more parts – but as a discerning reader these three were the ones that stuck with me. and that’s what counts, huh? 

Cronin’s vampires are the dark dripping reminder of evil that resides in each of us waiting to unleash itself onto the world. They run against the current grain and bring in the somber dark sense of despair and doom that resounds through the book. I certainly loved it. Gives Stephen King’s The Stand a run for its money and I would bet on this one. True, the book rambles a bit in the middle and even the climactic bang, a disturbing cliffhanger (there I said it, sorry if that was a spoiler!) leaves us yearning for more. But all in all, a glorious ride through the dark, hurtling towards that light at the end of the tunnel, The Passage delivers all it promises – an epic full of dread, melancholy and redemption for the unyielding hardy human spirit of endurance. 

Five Stars and Deserving More.