Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review: Satin - A Stitch in Time by Payal Dhar

I have always wondered why Payal Dhar and her Shadow in Eternity series are not famous enough. For the large number of authors that seem to have their 15 minutes under the limelight these days, the lack of excitement around Payal Dhar's Shadow in Eternity trilogy feels like a betrayal by us readers. Those three books, to me, are amongst some of the best fantasy fiction written in India and I always thought that the story should get its due. After her interesting and enjoyable Shadow in Eternity trilogy, I had marked Payal Dhar as an author to follow and waited for her next with much anticipation and expectation. It is the sort of feeling that one probably gets after seeing a highly remarkable debut by a young cricketer. For the next match or series, you have your fingers crossed — will he live up to his promise? Or was that just one good innings? There are so many writers who have nothing better to tell than their first story, that the idea of a second book (in this case, a second series) fills the reader with both anticipation and dread. You want to read more from the author, but you so ardently wish, with both your fingers and toes crossed, that she lives up to the expectations. You know it is so unfair to the writer that she has to live up to your expectations but can't keep wishing for it. When Payal Dhar's next book was announced and published, I tried my best to quell my expectations and hoped that it will be a well-told story.

Payal Dhar's latest, Satin - A Stitch in Time, is the first book of her new fantasy trilogy, Satin. Satin - A Stitch in Time is weaved around Marik Yavi, a young magician, from the family that rules the Prefecture of Marik. The Prefecture of Marik is a small matrilineal province in the Union of Nizrah that depends on its reputation as a tourist destination to make money. The Union of Nizrah practices something called the Flame Magic — its magic comes from the eternal flame and all the mages train at the Academy of the Flame at Koda. Politics, alliances, and enmities between the various provinces and prefectures of Nizrah are common and the various ruling families and their "officials" navigate the treacherous waters of Nizrah politics regularly.

Marik Yavi is the second son of the House of Marik and an accomplished word mage. Yavi finds himself to be the heir to his grandfather's, Marik Avin’s, belongings after Avin's death. This is surprising because when he was alive, Avin never lost an opportunity to belittle Yavi and point out that he was but an adopted son of the family. Even more surprising is Avin's legacy to Yavi — several bound volumes of what appear to be cloth samples of satin, and some diaries that chronicle routine, everyday affairs. And a cryptic note to Yavi which simply says: "The key is in Satin." Is this an elaborate prank by Avin on his grandson whom he disliked? Or is it something more that Avin expects Yavi, with his word magic and fondness for puzzles, to solve?

Yavi then undertakes a quest to unravel this mystery. The quest takes him to Kuzerazi in the north and to the estate of Fezar. Magic is frowned upon in Kuzerazi; Kuzerazans shun magic completely and treat mages with suspicion. Fezar is a mysterious place, in this province that is hostile to practitoners and believers of the Flame Magic. Fezar has suddenly dropped from all news a few decades back and its occupants keep minimal or no contact with the outside world. Outsiders are unwelcome. But Yavi must visit Fezar and find its Lakehouse if he has to solve the mystery of the satin samples for his grandfather had spent much of the time detailed in his diaries on the estate. A number of Avin's diary entries are about the construction of Fezar's Lakehouse. Joining him on this quest to unravel his grandfather's legacy are Marik’s sister, the rebellious Fahe, and a young Kuzerazan runaway, Keas. Fahe is the future Prefect of Marik — she's an adolescent, full of angst, one who is yet to learn how to control her magic and is confused with the happenings in her home and family. Keas, is the son of a renowned, almost legendary, Kuzerazan herbalist called Win. He has rejected the apprenticeship of his father and has defied him to pursue his dream of becoming a mage. Accompanying them are Yavi's and Fahe's bodyguards: Rindan and Zurel. Their quest, the three soon find out is dangerous — there are strangers about who clearly mean them harm and who want Yavi's cloth samples. And along the way, the group discovers things about their Flame magic and the nature of magic that challenges the notions they had held sacred. What they discover turns their world, and their time, upside down.

Payal Dhar's great skill at building alternative worlds is on display in Satin - A Stitch in Time. Like the Shadow in Eternity trilogy, Satin's world is a world very like ours in many ways and yet unlike ours. The world is full of technology and Dhar clearly channels her inner geek when she details the technological marvels of this world: the "Infonet," computers, touchscreen tablets, the comm handsets and especially the wonderful machinery and technology that Yavi, Fahe, and Keas encounter in their quest. This world is also magical with mages using pentasters to channel their magic — whether it is elemental or like Yavi's, of words. Some of the technology is in fact powered by Flame Magic. It's a world where Flame Magic dominates and other kinds of magic are non-existent and the notions of any other magic considered pagan. It is also a world that is balanced on an uneasy truce between the mages and the common folk without magic. The world itself thus sets up different tensions in this fictional land. There's the political tension between the ruling families. There's the tension between the rigid (almost "fundamentalist") adherers of the Flame and the others who question and seek to undermine these beliefs, there's the hostility of the Flame mages and the academy against considering any other kind of magic and conveniently labels them as pagan and rebellious. There's the suspicion of Kuzerazi towards magic and mages. And there is Fezar, which has secluded itself from the world and treats any trespass with extreme hostility. All of this is packaged in a geeky world that follows the decimal system of time with each hour having 100 minutes and each minute having hundred seconds. A day is divided into twenty hours and the calendar has five months of 70 days. Time is a crucial concept in Satin.

Satin - A Stitch in Time is clearly a more mature work compared to the Shadow in Eternity series. Action is used in small effective bursts to keep the story moving. For a greater part of the story, it is dialogue and descriptions that keep the narrative moving and the reader engaged. The convoluted politics between the different provinces is well laid out and I expect it will have a major bearing on how the other two books unfold. Dhar, in the Shadow of Eternity trilogy, had shown herself to be especially capable of delineating human relationships and intrigues. We see perhaps a greater emphasis on the same in Satin. Having Fahe as an adolescent perhaps is a masterstroke in this context. Her confusion and angst at the relationship equations in her matrilineal home mirror the reader's feelings. Her angst at growing up and belief that perhaps she no longer has a first claim on her elder brother, Yanik's (who is now expecting a child with his wife, Sera), affections is very well brought out. Yavi's mixed feelings about meeting his onetime mentor the Academy and later a lover, Disciple Kariad, too are portrayed extremely well. Fahe's discomfort with Zurel who is now expected to shadow her 24x7 and Keas' uneasiness at running away and then adjusting to a new life, culture, and people detailed nicely. It is these relationships and the delineation of the unique magic of this world that occupies most of the book. This book clearly demands patience and indulgence from the readers as the author sets her pieces on the board and explains the rules. There are detailed descriptions of the nature of magic (at times, with supporting diagrams).

For readers who are familiar with Dhar's earlier work, there is much in Satin - A Stitch in Time that will feel different and yet familiar. Payal Dhar's obsession with "Time" is a common thread between the two. The nature of magic in Satin may be different from the "Spirit" in the Shadow of Eternity but the blend of technology and magic is something that is familiar. Payal Dhar's fondness for the outdoors and hiking and trekking is something that will echo in the new series too. To a certain extent, some of the characters too are recognizable. One wonders if Disciple Kariad will be the Nira of Satin or if Jurel is not Chiyo from Dhar's other trilogy. I suspect there are elements and character types from the Shadow of Eternity which have served as seeds for their "equivalents" in Satin - A Stitch in Time. In interests of Satin, I do hope these are only seeds and that the characters here develop in a way that is unique to Satin's world.

Did Payal Dhar's Satin - A Stitch in Time meet my expectations? In many ways, it didn't. I suppose I was expecting another Noah and Maya from the Shadow of Eternity trilogy to hook me into the story. And while there may be characters in Satin that remind you of those in her other books, there is neither Noah nor Maya in Satin. In some ways, this is a drawback of Satin - A Stitch in Time. Noah and the wonderful Maya were two characters that I cared about and Maya's spunky shenanigans were what kept me hooked into the Shadow of Eternity books. Satin -A Stitch in Time has no characters, yet, about whom I really care. While the book is low on action and is more interested in laying out the lie of Satin's fictional land, it does result in a book where readers feel aloof from the characters of the story. The engagement with their fates and their quest is missing. But that is a personal take on the book. Satin, otherwise is a very well-told story. Dhar's strengths at creating alternate worlds have clearly triumphed in Satin - A Stitch in Time. I may not care much about the characters yet, but the plot has me hooked. I want to know what happens next and especially I am looking forward to how Dhar handles "faith" in the next two books of the series — I do hope the theme of "faith" in Flame Magic and its institutions is integral to the story that follows — it will be interesting to apply Dhar's take to our world. I am curious to know more about the "Pagan" magic and how it will question the dominant discourse of Flame Magic. And for a book that is about Time, there are many events and things in Satin - A Stitch in Time that make you wonder how exactly it all will happen in the future. Dhar, in a manner of speaking, has told her readers about some of the destinations that they can expect to reach in the forthcoming books in the series. The intrigue and the interest is not in knowing the destinations beforehand, but in wondering how exactly will the story-teller journey her readers to these milestones. Satin - A Stitch in Time is a sufficiently  intelligent fantasy that is engrossing and engaging enough to look forward to making the journey into Payal Dhar's new world again.

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