In this post reviews of: Michelle Sagara West’s Into the Dark Lands (Benbella Books, reprint edition, 2005); Michelle Sagara West’s Children of the Blood (Benbella Books, reprint edition, 2006); Michelle Sagara West’s Lady of Mercy (Benbella Books, reprint edition, 2006); Michelle Sagara West’s Chains of Darkness, Chains of Light (Benbellla Books, reprint edition, 2007); Anne Cherian’s The Invitation (WW Norton, 2012); Tan Lin’s Heath Course Pack (Counterpath Press, 2011); and On the Outside Looking Indian (Riverhead Trade, 2012).
A Review of Michelle Sagara West’s Into the Dark Lands (Benbella Books, reprint edition, 2005); Children of the Blood (Benbella Books, reprint edition, 2006); Lady of Mercy (Benbella Books, reprint edition, 2006); Chains of Darkness, Chains of Light (Benbellla Books, reprint edition, 2007).
Ah, yet another one of those authors I only found by random web page searches. Michelle Sagara West is a Japanese Canadian fantasy fiction author and has published numerous novels. I was really excited to find out about her precisely because there are so many titles to catch up on and read. Fortunately, the independent publisher Benbella Books has reprinted the entire Sundered Series, of which there are four books. These have come out in high-quality trade paperbacks, something which I admire given the pulp paper material that science fiction/ fantasy books are made of. To find out more about BenBella Books, go here:
I’ll start off the bat by saying that since I am reviewing all four works in The Sundered Series, you can expect some major spoilers below.
Into the Dark Lands is West’s debut novel (published first under the name Michelle Sagara). The reprint has a short prefatory note from the author explaining some of the challenges of getting her first book published as well as some reflections on what might have been changed had she written that book at a later age. It’s a very ambitious novel: you could tell that West wanted to create an entirely separate mythology, replete with a unique religious tradition, racial and ethnic communities, philosophies and creatures. West takes on the classic battle between good and evil here by separating those who fight under the auspices of the Light versus those who toil for the Dark. Our protagonist, Erin, becomes a fighter and healer of great power at a young age; she is committed to leading her people only insofar as it grants her a chance to avenge and to perhaps assuage her melancholy in the face of the deaths of both of her parents. Though the novel takes some time to get off the ground, West finds her protagonist stable footing in the direct confrontation with her “dark” adversaries, particularly the Nightwalker known as Stefanos. As with many fantasy fiction type works, the line between good and evil is never cut and dry and once Stefanos and Erin begin to explore the nature and the motivation behind each other’s lives, they must reconsider their long-held assumptions. It is the delicate dance between Erin and Stefanos, the light and the dark, that holds the reader’s attention through until the end of book 1. Erin later renamed Sara (by Stefanos) must finally make a choice about where to cast her lot: with the battle engaged by the Lernari against the Dark or with the Stefanos, the supposed enemy Nightwalker.
Children of the Blood takes an even darker turn than the first series by starting out with the capture of a young boy named Darin and the fall of what would seem to be the last Lernari stronghold, suggesting then that the forces of the Dark command all the major geographical regions. But, what of Lady Sara you ask? We follow Darin’s story until he arrives at the House of Declan, which appears to be just another name for Stefanos’s residence. Lady Sara is apparently recovering from some sort of amnesia, no doubt the result of the actions that Stefanos engages in at the conclusion of the first book. Darin’s importance is not quite clear at first: Lord Declan/ Stefanos wants Darin to be Lady Sara’s caretaker. Lord Declan is particularly calculating in this approach precisely because he knows that Lady Sara has always had a fondness for slaves. Yes, Darin is a slave and this subject position is the source of incredible tension in the novel. Sagara West’s narrative achieves a strange politically invested texture through the representation and the articulation of a fantasy-form of slavery. A brutal sequence involving the torture and execution of Darin’s brother, Kerren, reveals how little agency he might have even to the ownership of his name. By the time that Darin has arrived to the House of Declan, his spirit is almost entirely defeated. He is exceedingly afraid to make any emotional attachments and is reduced to a state of terror when Lady Sara wants him to reveal his name. As the novel moves toward its conclusion, we begin to see some of the problems that have come up. Lady Sara has essentially been asleep for hundreds of years; the church of the Dark side is moving against Stefanos (also known as the First), the most powerful of the Nightwalkers; even the servants behind him (Sargoth, the Second for instance) are being hailed to work against him, all because of his twisted love for the Lernari woman known as Lady Sara. If Lady Sara made the ultimate sacrifice for love in the first novel of the series, Stefanos must come up with his own in the second.
The third book in the Sundered series takes off immediately where book 2 last ended. There is no gap in time; Darin and Lady Sara/Erin are on the run, while the Church (Lord Vellen in particular) is asserting its power in the right to control various aspects of the Empire. Sargoth the Second and Stefanos the First still remain in tension with each other as the primary and secondary rulers of the Empire. Darin and Erin are soon accompanied by two mysterious men: one is an older man with a strange form of fire-magic named Trethas and the other is a bratty gentleman with noble-like airs named Robert. They must keep off the main road as much as they can, but inclement weather and the coming of winter force them to consider finding more permanent refuge. A brief but disastrous stay at an inn begins to reveal Robert’s complicated history. Indeed, Robert is not just anyone but a man of royal lineage, deposed from the very kingdom that Darin and Erin are traveling toward. For her part, Erin is having trouble dealing with her mythic legacy as the titular “lady of mercy.” A legend has been brewing that the lady of mercy would return at the time of deepest darkness. Since the second book saw the last of the lands controlled by the Light fall, it would seem that Erin’s emergence presents the fulfilling of this prophecy. Given the fact that Erin believes she failed to protect her fellow Lernari in her mistaken love for Stefanos, she does not really believe she can save anyone and feels incredible guilt that her immortality was granted at the expense of the blood sacrifice of some of her closest allies. Further still, she discovers that her grandmother had traveled through time and had known that she would fall in love with a Nightwalker and never bothered to warn her. This book is the first of the series that presents a more positive and upward arc for the characters. There is the sense that there can be a reasonable and sustained resistance the Dark. As with the first two books, Sagara West shows an impressive ability to move plot along and as I have gotten further into the series, my investment in the outcome of the battle between Light and Dark grows.
In the final book, Sagara West reorients the series toward the Light. That is, Sara/Erin and her many followers (such as Darin) accompany her as she attempts to take back more of the Dark lands and free more slaves. There are some new and interesting characters introduced at play in this novel, the primary of which is Corfaire, a former Malanthi slave, who though containing the blood of the Dark forces, nevertheless vows his allegiance to Erin. Erin seems to be particularly focused on freeing the Lernari (primarily Belfas) who were sacrificed by Stefanos in order to grant her immortality. This quest will likely require Erin to die, thereby freeing them to cross into the afterlife. Lord Vellen takes a much bigger role in this novel as the Churh maneuvers in hopes that it will have a larger part in the Empire if and when the First (Stefanos) might be deposed. Lord Vellen also plays his own “game of thrones” with the Church and attempts to secure himself a viable partner that will cement his power. Again, Sagara West shows an astute ability to advance plotting here, though the conclusion may seem more predictable to anyone who is an avid reader of these types of fantasy novels. The romance plot, in particular, is not a surprise and roots this work firmly within a kind of fairy tale trajectory that neatly bounds up the novel as a whole.
If Sagara West ever receives yet another printing for the Sundered series, my suggestions would be to include a map of the Light and Dark Lands as well as a general glossary of terms. What is so incredibly impressive about Sagara West’s work is that she ambitiously creates an entire system of bureaucracy and culture that we can occasionally be unmoored as readers by them. In any case, this series is certainly a great fit for classes exploring speculative and fantasy fictions and could be an interesting addition to Asian North American literary courses, precisely because the main narrative does explore issues of ethnic representation, albeit through imaginary models.
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A Review of Anne Cherian’s The Invitation (WW Norton, 2012).
There was a point while reading Anne Cherian’s The Invitation that I was absolutely frustrated by all of the main characters and so I had to take a break from the novel. This statement is not to say that Cherian’s second novel (after The Good Indian Wife) is somehow a flop, but rather that she hits the nail on the head about the ways in which immigrant subjects sometimes perform their success rather than actually embody it. In this novel that is really about appearances, the main characters must reconsider their motivations for the tales they tell, especially about the children, who become the focus of so much burden and expectation. Our not-so-merry cast of characters includes three married couples: the traditional Vikram and his arranged marriage wife, Priya, who are at the center of this novel because they send out the titular invitation for a party celebrating the graduation of their son Nikhil from MIT (they have one other younger son named Nandan); Frances and Jay, both South Asians who enter into a “love marriage” and who have three children (Mandy, Lily, and Sam) but whose financial situation is rocky as Frances’s realtor job is unstable in the wake of the economic downturn; and then Lali and her Jewish husband Jonathan, with one son (Aaron). Vic (shortened from Vikram) and his invitation is cause for much concern because his son, Nikhil, doesn’t even want to have the party and pushes his father to allow him to go to cooking school rather than follow his father’s footsteps into the land of computing. Frances and Jay are embarrassed in the sense that their lives seem far less successful than Vic’s, though they of course do not know the familial dynamics going into the party. Frances and Jay are particularly worried about Mandy whose grades have taken a turn for the worse. Finally, Lali and Jonathan’s marriage seems to be on the verge of trouble. When Jonathan decides to be more serious about his Jewish faith, he spends more and more time away from Lali, who feeling neglected begins to consider rekindling an old romance. Further still, their son Aaron, though attending Harvard, has decided to take a break from schooling and Lali worries about what to tell Vic and others that she will see at the party. Thus, everyone is ultimately worried about how they will be perceived and much obviously stems from feelings of insecurity and self-worth that are front and center in this novel. The last act that occurs at the actual party continues to play out some of the inter-couple tensions, but Cherian deftly moves each plot toward closure. The best part of the novel is the fact that there is another invitation that is included at very ending, complicating the expectation that everything is happily ever after. It is these last five pages that really lift this narrative above what could have been a rather sentimental story of immigrant families finding a sense of community.
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A Review of Tan Lin’s Heath Course Pack (Counterpath Press, 2011).
I unfortunately have not read Tan Lin’s Heath (plagiarism/outsource), which I am guessing is an earlier version of this title. I earlier reviewed his wonderful little book, Insomnia and the Aunt, over on Asian American literature fans, alongside Lu’s funktastic Ambient Parking Lot. I’ll admit that right off the bat I sort of gave up about figuring out authorial intentionality when I started reading this work, so I was kind of annoyed to come to the conclusion of the book to find an extensive interview, which sort of provides a map of what Lin was envisioning when he wrote this eclectic, uninhibited, genre-bending, idiosyncratic, irreverent work of collage, satire, mixed-media, and “found” narrative/lyric. So I’m going to bracket that rather useful interview and simply speak a little bit off the cuff about some of my impressions. It seems to me that Lin’s work speaks primarily to questions of communication and cultural dissemination in a digital age. With constant references to the news media’s obsession with Heath Ledger’s death to Project Gutenberg, which seeks to digitally archive print sources, the internet has itself created a differen t mode by which we are attentive. I was thinking a lot about my own writing process because of Lin’s book. In any given day, when I am writing or working on a new academic article or chapter, I am constantly going back and forth between different sites: e-mail, my MS word document, various news and pop culture sites, updating my Pandora, sometimes I have Hulu playing on the background, or my ipod might be running. I might pause for a second to text someone. Yes, to be sure, all of this multitasking can disturb my train of thought, can wreak havoc on my attention span and admittedly: I disrupted my own work on a book chapter because I had writers’ block in order to compose this review, but it all seems to model Lin’s own consideration of the way we interface with culture, how much can come at you at any one time. I paused to drink some coffee and now I’m back at it here. If there is a critique to be made of this kind of work, it’s that you almost want to experience all of the different narratives and informational modes all at one time: I think Lin’s work is an attempt to get at that kind of simultaneity in the digital age. The design that went into this publication is stellar: there seems to be coffee stains affixed to the beginning and end pages (or something that has browned the pages) and there were points at which the reproduction of amazon.com link systems was just eerily sequenced into the text, as if we were ready to click with our “mice” and go off into the vast internet cyberspace. Lin’s mischievous Heath Course Pak seems intended to challenge, to complicate, and to poke some fun at our incredibly (in)attentive lives.
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A Review of Rupinder Gill’s On the Outside Looking Indian (Riverhead Trade, 2012).
If there a life crisis that might occur as one turns thirty, it is found in Rupinder Gill’s comedic memoir On the Outside Looking Indian. Gill, who grows up in Canada in a South Asian household, comes upon her third decade realizing that there are many things she still wants to experience, such as owning a dog, attending summer camp, having a sleepover, learning how to swim, living in New York City, and going to Disney World. Such experiences were effectively denied to her, as she grows up in a family focused on preserving cultural value systems that did not necessarily deem certain activities as a necessary right of childhood. This memoir thus chronicles Gill’s attempts to achieve some of these goals and in the process, reclaiming the kind of life she had always wanted for herself. Perhaps, the biggest strength of this memoir is Gill’s self-reflective and self-deprecating narration; you come to understand her obsessions and insecurities or in other cases, quickly identify with her challenges and quandaries. There aren’t any catastrophic plot complications or events, but there are quietly poignant moments that shine through the comedic veneer that showcase how Gill’s resolutions are also a pathway into new and deeper perspectives about what she considers most important to her. Indeed, coming out of her “second childhood” as she calls it, there is a stronger sense and attachment to her Indian ancestry, an ethnic background that had long caused her a sense of resentment. Further still, this process helps her become closer to friends and family and giving her a new found equanimity that leaves the conclusion on an unsentimental, but much appreciated sense of optimism.
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