2014, Fingerprint! Publishing
447 pages, dark fantasy
Thank you to Fingerprint! Publishing for providing me with a free review copy of this book.
Adri Sen, a renegade tantric living illegally in New Kolkata, wakes to find Death sitting at the end of his bed. He is given 24 hours to get his affairs in order before Death will return for his soul.
Hoping to escape the clutches of the Horseman and discover who is behind the plot to kill him, Adri is led on a merry chase through the war-ravaged areas of magical Old Kolkata. Accompanied by Maya Ghosh, a student at New Kolkata's Jadavpur University with a secret purpose of her own; Maya's younger brother, Gray Ghosh; and a highly trained assassin who has been hired to assure Maya's safety, Adri must use all of his knowledge and abilities to survive in the harsh wasteland of the old city.
Set in a magical, post-apocalyptic alternative-universe Kolkata, peopled with demons, sorcerers, tantrics/necromancers, angels, witches, and others, this high fantasy novel will fulfill your craving for great speculative fiction in the vein of JRR Tolkein or Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.
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Sense of History
Part of what makes good fantasy is the depth of the story. Does the world feel real, does it feel like it has a history and mythology of its own?
The answer to this for Tantrics of Old is yes, definitely. Like the real city of Kolkata (where I currently live), the history of Old Kolkata is palpable, visible, definite. It peeps from every corner of the narration, seeps into the dialogue, grows where least expected.
And the best part is that we are not given the complete history, but only bits and pieces that we observe or need to know. It does not feel forced, but rather a gradual unfolding of the state of the city, which is familiar but utterly different all the same. What happened? Where did this new anti-magic government come from? What is the history of Kolkata in this alternative universe? And where on Earth is New Kolkata supposed to be located, that you can get there by Metro in six hours???
But the book is not only aimed at those familiar with the city. The history of this alternative city is so obviously different from the one that I know that it might as well be a completely different place.
Readers jaded by the predominance of Medieval Europe-inspired fantasy will find the non-Western setting of Tantrics of Old refreshing.
The author has chosen to avoid heavily relying on Indian (Hindu or other) mythology; this is not a retelling of the Ramayana or another famous story. Instead, he has created his own fantasy world full of its own mythology, rules, and logic. At the same time, there are hints of Bengali culture and mythology spread liberally throughout, in a way that brings more depth to the world rather than limiting the story to what is already known.
A beautiful example is this shadow puppet play and book reading that was presented at the launch of the book:
While not specifically referring to any Indian myth or story, this tale feels like it could be a Bengali myth, especially with the introduction of the storyteller sitting under a tree cross-legged and talking to children.
Characters and races
I was impressed by the deftness of the author's characterizations, not only of the main characters but also of the various species and races of creatures that the protagonists come in contact with. Everything from mad ascetics to demons to vampires to wraiths make an appearance. Despite the huge number of characters, the author manages to describe most of them just enough to highlight their individuality without distracting from the rest of the story.
Adri Sen is a well-developed, multidimensional (anti-?)hero, who has more knowledge and power than he chooses to reveal. Despite his difficult life, he truly cares about the city of Old Kolkata, and does what he can to protect his friends and allies.
Maya Ghosh is a strong, intelligent college student who wants to understand everything that is happening. She is the perfect person to be the leader of the group, but unfortunately in this book her character is not very active. I would normally point out the problems with leaving the woman out of the action, but in this case it seems reasonable, as she has more important things to do and learn at the time. It seems that the sequel will feature her in a much more active role.
Gray Ghosh originally tags along for two reasons: he wants an opportunity to photograph the old city, and he wants to protect Maya. When they actually arrive in Old Kolkata, he finds that he is in for more than he bargained for. He matures over the course of the book, and comes to the understanding that sometimes adventure is not always the best thing.
I loved this book. It was everything I have been looking for in a fantasy novel, but have a hard time finding. If you like complex, dark fantasy, this is the book you have been searching for. I can't wait for the sequel, Horsemen of Old, due to be released at the end of 2015 or 2016.