The evergreen genre of historical fantasy can survive for eternity on the treasury of Indian literature right from the lore of scriptures to the untapped folklore. Every story has something unique to offer and every retelling explores an untold perspective of the said legend.
Guardians of Halahala is a culmination of the infinite perspectives of Indic lore and a masterful storytelling by the author Shatrujeet Nath. The book being the first of the Vikramaditya trilogy came as a suggestion by my editor when we had started editing the final draft of my debut fiction Abhaya. Her conviction that Shatrujeet’s handling of a multi-character driven epic would have a lot to offer to the newbie writers made me go for the book. This would be one of those reviews where I would also focus on what an aspiring writer can learn from the novel.
The author weaves a tale that extensively draws storylines and characters from history, folklore as well as the Puranas. Those who are particular about compliance to historicity might have a lot of reservations about the contents of the novel. But beyond the debates of historicity, the story has enough and more to offer to a reader who loves the craft of story-telling.
Unlike many novels of the genre which start with an adolescent protagonist struggling to find his or her purpose, Guardians of Haalahala starts at the pinnacle of the protagonist’s achievements. Emperor Vikramaditya’s Rajasuya could have been the finale of an adventure ridden tale of the most beloved king of the bards. But the author chose to delve into the fresh set of intrigues that follow a man’s ascent to ultimate power. It is like the author wants to send a strong message about how retaining the stability of an empire is much trickier than the ascent to the position of an emperor. The readers get a taste of the multiple forces that can neutralize the so-called power.
We are introduced to multi-layered characters who weave their own sub-threads of the story and I felt myself liking each of them immensely. Those who we only know as the patronized, luxury-pampered poets like Kalidasa also appear with jaw-droppingly different personalities.
The plot revolves around the dagger of ‘immense value’ that could potentially destroy the universe that Lord Shiva entrusts Vikramaditya to protect. The cause attracts newer enemies of supernatural nature, adding to the already existing invasion threat by the dreaded Hunas. Adding to these, there are a variety of riveting political intrigues that keep the pages turning.
The language is another aspect worth dwelling upon. While the gripping plot pushes the reader’s gaze towards what happens next, the savory poetical descriptions add to the flesh of the novel. I really loved the bit where Vikramaditya and his half-brother Vararuchi have a Veena ‘jugalbandi’ which immediately brought to life, the diya lit palace of Vikramaditya in front of my eyes. In retrospect, the Veena scene wasn’t crucial to the plot, but it mirrored the cultural image of the times, the multifaceted skills of the kings as well as the delicateness of the complicated relationships.
As a reader, I look forward to social commentary and in my opinion, that is what differentiates a folklore from an enduring legend. But storytellers have a hard job of introducing social commentaries without slowing down the plot. Often it has to be an added dimension to the core plot, the character structures and the relationships between them. I liked the face-off shown between the supernatural ‘healing’ and actual scientific medicine (of those days) in the spat between Shukracharya and Dhanvantari.
Like any good trilogy, the plot goes only deeper as the book ends and left me waiting for the second book of the series, The conspiracy at Meru. Above all, this is the kind of writing craft I would love to learn and practice – intertwining an independent and intriguing plot with the Puranic concepts.
There is little that I can complain about the book except for minor technical detail. One is the interchangeable usage of terms Rakshasas and Asuras (which even ancient authors and poets have done). I always believed that ‘Rakshasa’ was a derogatory term used for Asuras who are otherwise not very differentiable from the Suras. But then, the premises either way is debatable. Another thing is a couple of formatting errors I came across which Jaico Publishers need to take care of. There was a paragraph repeated and some needless line spaces and a rare typo here and there. I don’t know if that is just in the kindle version. Given the excellent writing craft, the proofreaders need to pay more attention to it.
My Rating 4.5/5
Do buy the book from Amazon