Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress
Price: INR 250
Publisher: Harper Collins
Finally! A middle grade fantasy based on Indian mythology that actually lives up to its potential.
Like many others, I was bitten by the mythology bug thanks to Rick Riordan. His books actually made Greek gods, Egyptian legends and Roman tales cool. Except they were already cool, so I guess his books made them accessible and advertised their coolness to the world at large.
In fact, his books were what got me interested in Indian mythology in the first place. I had always stayed away from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata thanks to the heavy-duty religious associations they have. The books are very much part of India’s cultural consciousness and are taken very seriously by many people even today.
Whatever else they may be, the two books are a fountain of interesting myths and stories. A few weeks ago, I read a translated-from-Sanskrit version of the Ramayana that had all the elements of a Rick Riordanesque romp. I could just picture him tackling the Indian myths and coming out with an entertaining adventure.
Needless to say, I’ve been on the lookout for Indian mythology-based books ever since. The few that I have read rarely lived up to my expectations – while the myth part may have been accurate and detailed, Riordan’s sense of fun was sorely lacking. I kept going back to the idea of him being the only person who could write a book that would appeal to me. Enter Ash Mistry.
Ash Mistry is a 13-year-old London boy who, along with his ten-year-old sister Lucky, has been deposited with his aunt and uncle in Varanasi. What starts off as an archaeological assignment for his uncle involving newly discovered Harappan ruins (made my inner history nerd very happy), soon turns into a deadly game of hide and seek. Ash accidentally discovers an ancient weapon and makes himself an unwitting target for an evil magician and his hordes of rakshasas (demons). With Rishi (an old sadhu) and Parvati (a non-evil rakshasa) to help, Ash has to adjust to the new reality of his world, stop Ravana from rising and essentially save the world. Not exactly ideal for a petrified boy who just wants to get back home to his video games, friends and school crush.
The book had me gripped right from the beginning, even though it didn’t have even half the drama that the rest of the book manages to stuff in. But the author, Chadda, has a clever way with words. Even when there wasn’t anything happening at the start, he managed to create an atmosphere laden with fear and trepidation. You have this feeling that something’s wrong (even before Ash does) and wait with bated breath waiting for things to get messy.
Chadda has a knack for creating characters. His characters are well-developed, interesting and exhibit completely believable traits and reactions. Ash is a reluctant hero who constantly compares his actions to what “real heroes” would do. With Riordan, you always get the feeling that inspite of all the doubts and misgivings his heroes and heroines exhibit, they’re suited for the role. They adjust more or less easily and quickly adapt themselves to face the challenges thrown at them. This book plays it slightly different, and it works. You could well be Ash yourself, terrified by the enormity of what you’re expected to do and desperately struggling to keep a hold on your sanity in a world gone mad. Everyone likes to think that in case there’s a zombie apocalypse, you’ll be one of the last humans left to defend the world. That’s what all the movies would have you believe. What’s likelier is that you’ll be one of the first ones to go down and will actually be one of the zombies baying for the actual hero’s blood (or brains, as the case may be).
Chadda is great when it comes to the intricacies of the world he’s devised (lots of attention to detail, evidently the result of painstaking research). I’m finicky when it comes to writing style (sometimes a style I don’t like will kill a perfectly good plot or a well-etched character), and his suited me well.
What I missed in the book was the presence of dysfunctional gods with personality disorders – something Riordan is a master of. While Riordan’s real villains are evil and larger than life, his gods (the helpful and the curmudgeonly) are thoroughly entertaining. There’s lots of scope for that with the multitude of characters Indian myths consists of. I would have loved to see Indian gods with character quirks making our mythology livelier and funnier. My favourite character was Parvati, the half-human, half-rakshasa daughter of Ravana who is more of a badass than Ash (in one instance he refers himself as the Robin to her Batman) and has a personality I could easily be best friends with.
Pick this up if you’re a fan of middle-grade fantasies, want a bit of action and adventure injected into your reading life or are just looking for a well-written book exploring Indian mythology.