I would like to do this more often – pick up two contenders, books that I read and put forth a study in contrast. Today we will spend some time getting under the skin of a fourteen year old assassin called Thomas Cale and compare him against the peerless Buddha, the Enlightened One.
The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman and Buddha 8-part series by Osamu Tezuka: Probably an odd choice of books to compare but an excellent choice of books to contrast. Two series that I’m currently reading through present an excellent dichotomy in the styles of epic fantasy that deserves a discussion.
Both the books, while couched in a larger gamut of “epic” fantasy [And don’t get me wrong – they are most decidedly E-P-I-C, simply in the staggering scope of characters and intermingling plots], I think they are a strange fit on that bookshelf. Both series deal with the matter of faith and absolution in completely different opposing manners and yet, manages to charm and wriggle their way into the “Best Fantasy” book-lists based on faith.
Religion has often been the backdrop of massive conflicts in many a fantasy novel – Take R Scott Bakker’s trilogies, the Prince of Nothing – a full dark, no stars reveal based on two opposing faiths clashing and the rise of one man as the prophet of God who then goes mad with power and his own visions. The classic Dune series by Frank Herbert, a towering work that defies any slotting unto Fantasy or Science Fiction (according to me) and yet is still counted as one of the most masterful works of imagination, speculative fiction (for lack of a better term!) recounts the tale of a desert planet and the rise of a new religion led by this all powerful man, who defies his destiny and goes on ( yet again to become God –like himself!) But am digressing and I hark back to the strange and intriguing Thomas Cale – the Left Hand of God, destined to be God’s Angel of Death and Sidhartha or Buddha, the Blessed One who through suffering and intense hardships, attains enlightenment and wishes to rid humanity of its curse of suffering and travails.
Thomas Cale and the Redeemers are a strange “cult” – cult is probably a loose word here that does not justify the zany characterization that Hoffman pours into them. A dark, strange set of priests who believe that just being born unto this earth is a sin by itself and we can only attain God’s blessings in the afterlife after we have cleaned and purified ourselves by “burning in hell’s fires” – for them, an “Act of Faith” is the execution of “acolytes” who have broken cardinal rules set within the walls of their sanctuary. The book is seething with intrigue and mysteries that crackle in the backdrop as we race through the narrative, mostly told from a third party POV – mainly following the antics of Thomas Cale, the chosen one. Hoffman builds up the suspense pretty strongly in the first half of the book as we are stuck, claustrophobic and blind with fear, inside the walls of the Redeemer Sanctuary where escape in unimaginable. And yet there is hope as Cale strikes up friendship and we are slowly exposed to Cale’s strange thoughts – he has been planning on escape for a long time now and secret hordes of materials needed to escape this jail are revealed. The faint spark in that tunnel vision narrative lights up and very soon, we are hurtling through tunnels unexplored as Cale and his friends, stumble upon a terrible secret within the sanctuary and have to flee outside.
Sadly from here on, the narrative falls through some ditch. Uninteresting side characters tag onto the story, Thomas Cale – the chosen angel of God – actually gets smitten and falls in love! The strangeness in this story set in some inexplicable timeline on earth, however, was the one thing that kept me going and I badly wanted to find out where Cale ends up. Frankly, I haven’t yet reached the end of this boy’s story so I wouldn’t give up on him just yet. I will be starting book#2, The Last Four Things soon enough and I will have more meat to add to this one.
Buddha on the other hand, is a series I recommend. Wholeheartedly and unabashedly to any fan of
fantasy or graphic novels. It’s quite a splash – a riot of plotlines that loop around and twist among each other, a never ending array of characters that have seared their place into my heart and brains both and some fantastical imagination that draws up BC (Before Christ, the timelines) India like never before. Irreverent, poignant and absolutely mesmerizing, we follow the central character of Buddha through all his trials and tribulations till he achieves enlightenment and then goes on to preach to spread that knowledge gained to the rest of the humanity. I probably sound like a fan-boy-frothing-at-the-mouth and screaming incoherently about this being the BEST work of Graphic art ever - And it IS ! Read it for all its worth and you will love the experience where you are floated away to another India – that only existed in the fringes of your imagination but has burst out in full glory under the masterful art of Tezuka. Tezuka full flexes his world building muscles throughout the series and every new book in the series takes us way from the central Kapilavastu where Buddha was born as Prince Sidhartha and introduces us to more enchanting kingdoms, warring states, conniving princes and seductive princesses.
In sharp contrast to Left Hand of God, the Buddha series perhaps, is about a philosophy that Buddha has been pursuing for a lifetime as opposed to rigid beliefs of faith and religion that Cale has been indoctrinated with and which forces him to rebel. Both are rebels in their own ways – Buddha having given up his cozy comforts of the palace, a wife and kid and some truly awesome friends in search of Truth and answers. Cale, flees his childhood sanctuary – the sanctuary that has understood his purpose and has trained him in everything he knows – in search of …well, truths about himself in a way. Its fascinating how naïve he turns out to be in the real world simply because in spite of being trained to be the worlds best assassin, Cale is still a boy and a vulnerable one at that. Hoffman without being preachy about it, actually brings to light the horrendous concept of child soldiers and uses it as an effective foil to give us an engrossing story. Tezuka gives us not one, but three or four child perspectives – the most fascinating being Tatta, the boy wonder who could assume the souls of animals and who grows up to be Bandit and also biggest friend and follower of Buddha. The others are equally well crafted and beautifully illustrated – Devadasa, the orphan who grows up in the wild with wolves, Ananda another orphan who gets molded and protected by Mara, the Devil as the ultimate weapon against Buddha are some gems that shine out.
You may always argue that Tezuka had eight books in which to build the story of Buddha’s experiments with life and truths and his struggle for salvation while Hoffman has had to cram it in just three where Cale is trying to come to terms with his exalted or doomed position as the Left Hand of God. Whatever be the case, reading both the books form a superlative exercise for contrasting how the pursuit of truth and adherence of faith and religion has been pursued in completely contrasting manners. I recommend both a definite one time reads! The Buddha is more delightful pool that you will come back to dive in more often and I know, you will. But Cale is a hard unforgiving teenager, bred for violence and trying hard not to be a pawn in the hands of fate and am sure has a great tale to tell as well!