[Note: this isn’t a conventional review of The Manticore’s Secret, so purists will no doubt forgive my addressing the author by his first name rather than the formal ‘Basu’. And parts of this post will probably be incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read The Simoqin Prophecies, so proceed at your own risk etc. Or, as Samit would no doubt encourage you to do, go out and buy 50 copies of Simoqin, read one of them and then come back here.]
You heard it here first: young Samit has another winner on his hands. The Manticore’s Secret is a book that repeats the best qualities of its predecessor and adds some of its own. The Simoqin Prophecies (review here; para breaks not mine), as anyone who’s read it knows, was rich with quirky, subversive humour that simultaneously referenced the sci-fi/fantasy genre and overturned many of its staples. I remember reading the first paragraph of that book a couple of years ago and thinking to myself, Han Solo-style, “I have a bad feeling about this.” But against all expectations it just kept getting better. It was a rare example of a writer who showed off his cleverness but did it so good-naturedly (and with genuine skill and originality, not just by hacking his many influences) that it worked.
Manticore has all of these qualities, as well as the awesome imagination on view the first book – almost every page seems to be bursting with new ideas. But it also represents a step forward, showing a side of Samit’s writing that I had underrated: there is a new assuredness here in his descriptive skills (to complement his well-established knack for conversational scenes). If you know Samit, you’ll know he has a strong visual sense and a knack for storyboarding (it’s no coincidence that he loves comics so much and is a fan of writers like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett). This comes across even more strongly in Manticore than it did in Simoqin and I was blown away by how cinematic some of the passages were. To cite just one example: the marvelous scene where the ravian Behrim is pursued by a pack of werewolves and then engages them in battle. It was so intense and vivid, I could actually see the whole thing unfolding in live-action in my mind. Which isn’t something that happens often (the last time I can recall it was when I was reading Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell more than a year ago). It’s a rare talent.
At 530 pages Manticore can probably be accused of being overlong – but I say that about most books I read, so don’t take my word for it. Readers who are more in tune with the SFF genre than I am will probably relish the references a lot more anyway, and be able to cope better with the large number of characters moving in and out of the story. Also, the main plot (the mindgames, the continually – sometimes confusingly – shifting equations between the ravians, rakshas, humans, vamans and other races) is best treated as a Macguffin, a pretext for all the delicious embellishments that are the real strengths of these books.
‘May I ask you something?’ asked Akimis. ‘What are those dark lines under your eyes?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Kirin. ‘They feel like little scales. I think it’s from wearing the Gauntlet too long.’
‘The Gauntlet is evil,’ she said. ‘But the lines bring out your eyes.’
Kirin grinned. ‘Thank you.’
I want to avoid plot spoilers, but here are some tasters:
-- Watch out for the weather-influencing Kaos butterfly, one of my favourites among the new creations (“…it fluttered over to Asvin’s shoulder, causing a sudden gust of wind that blew a bandit off a cliff-top in Ventelot four months later”). Also, the Vindiciti Hoplites minotaurs, with their “single and straight-minded moo-vements”.
-- Maya gets to try on some “short vanaress robes”, which makes her a sight for sore eyes (now if only the young author would take my sage advice and incorporate a detailed 10-page sex scene between her and Kirin in the last book. But he won’t, I just know he won’t).
-- No I can’t tell you how it ends, except that it involves a kick-ass Trance Duel and a sort-of death of one of the key characters.
-- For those who have been wondering, yes, the Obiyalis Gameworld is explained (or is it?) – and the Gods overseeing the Game are as whimsical and colourful as the protagonists whose actions they are manipulating. (“Why do We do what We do?” they muse, and address each other as “Zivran, most optimistic of omnipotences…” and in other suchlike ways.) At one point Samit also uses their exchanges for an enjoyable little dig at the Artworld.
Congrats Samit, and may you quack and waddle evermore.
The rest of you, go and buy your 50 copies pronto. (They’ll also be available at the launch.)