The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda, 292 pp, RL 5

Thanks to a fellow bookseller for introducing me to The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda! I love a good fantasy story that employs fairy tale or mythological characters, creatures and plots, but don't always love what authors do with them. I read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and didn't quite click with his writing style. I gave The Red Pyramid a shot because I wanted to give Riordan another try and the idea of Egyptian mythology was exciting to me. While Riordan tells a great story and I would definitely recommend the Kane Chronicles, again, I felt like I didn't click with his fast paced, action packed style of writing. More to my liking is the character development and complexity of plot in Anne Ursu's trilogy of books featuring a female protagonist and Greek gods and goddesses that begins with The Shadow Thieves or Scott Mebus's Gods of Manhattan trilogy featuring figures from American History into gods and goddesses that control the underworld of New York City. Sarwat Chadda's The Savage Fortress joins this short list. However, before I gush about how fantastic Chadda's writing is and how totally cool Hindu Mythology and his use of it in the plot is, I need to begin where this great review at Book Zone (for Boys)
begins: with the fact that, unlike so many action heroes in kid's books, the main character of The Savage Fortress is NOT white. Ash Mistry is British Asian. A fantastic first that I hope will lead to more diversity in this genre!

Instead of spending the summer in his comfort zone and hopefully seeing Gemma in a bikini, thirteen-year-old Ash and his ten-year-old sister Lakshmi, known as Lucky staying with Aunt Anita and Uncle Vik, his father's brother, in Varanasi. It's believed that, if you die in Varanasi, India's holiest city, you get instant access to heaven with "no worries about the cycles of reincarnation and rebirth." Because this, the city is filled with the dead and dying, with shroud-wrapped bodies floating down the Ganges. Chadda does a phenomenal job setting the scene in Varanasi, giving young readers an instant feel for how the city looks, feels and smells. And how it functions - bribes are made to get cows out of the road, sadhus, holy men, charm cobras on the street for coins. Uncle Vik, a lecturing professor and expert on ancient Indian history, is currently working for Lord Alexander Savage, and Englishman whose family made their first fortune during the opium wars with China. Now, aged and horribly disfigured by a skin disease, he has enlisted Uncle Vik to decode a scroll, sealing the deal with a check for two million pounds.  

Within the first few chapters, Ash has seen Savage for what he is, and realized that he has an army of rakshasa - demons - passing for human and serving his every need. Chadda weaves the story of the great Indian epic, the Ramayana, throughout his plot, with passages that tell the story as Ash channels the ancient prince Rama. A picnic-gone-wrong at the dig Uncle Vik is working at leaves the unwitting Ash with something that Lord Savage wants very badly, badly enough to kill. And there are deaths in this book, which gives it both a sense of gravity and also purpose. Unlike Riordan's books where there seem to be Dr. Who sized loopholes when it comes to getting out of scrapes, the characters in Chadda's book take hits.

Once Ash finally knows what is happening and why, and what part he has to play in this story, he attends the requisite school to learn his craft. However, the "school" is, as one character says, to use a "most appropriate" American phrase, is where Ash will learn to "kick butt" using his bare hands and an incredible array of weapons I had never heard of. He spends his days fighting and learning to fight while Lucky learns to heal. Ash's gradual transformation, physically and emotionally, is very realistic and makes the fantastic and heroic events of the novel more believable, unlike more fast-paced stories. And, unlike more fast-paced stories, Chadda invests time in his characters, making them all the more compelling. My favorite character, with Ash as a close second, is Parvati, the 4,500 year old rakshasa who takes the form of a fifteen-year-old girl when she is not taking various serpentine forms. A fierce warrior, Parvati is the daughter of Ravana, the greatest demon king of all time and antagonist of the Ramayana, and a human princess, is classified as a "near-extinction event." She has this unbelievable weapon called an "urumi," a flexible sword with four whip-like blades. Having lived so many lives, Parvati is a fountain of knowledge and knows how things will play out over and over, however, she is on Ash's side, willing to risk it all for him. And he has a bit of a crush on her.

Like all great ancient epics (I still can't get the sounds of the Cyclops killing and eating Odysseus's men, as narrated by Sir Ian McKellan, out of my imagination) the Ramayana is filled with battles and violence and really creepy things, to boot. The Savage Fortress is probably a book that is better for older readers, especially since this is a book that, when read by the right kid, will spark an interest in Indian mythology and hopefully result in some great research. Be sure to start with the Ash Mistry website where Chadda shares information about the characters and their mythological backgrounds. And don't miss the next book in the series, The City of Death, which is still only available in hardcover in the US. Originally published in the UK, the titles of the books there all begin with "Ash Mistry." The third book is Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness. If you fall in love with this series like I did, it IS possible to purchase paperbacks of books 2 & 3 online for less than is costs to have them shipped from England...

Source: Purchased Audio Book and Paperback

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