I contacted the author, Sarwat Chadda, via his website and gushed over how awesome this premise was and how excited I was to read his book. This conversation was the impetus behind the entire A More Diverse Universe blog tour idea. So, the book had big shoes to fill.
And honestly, when I received The Savage Fortress in the mail and saw the very young-looking cover, I had some trepidations. I wasn't sure if this was a book that would appeal to me at all. I wasn't really into the idea of reading a book about a boy escaping from Godzilla.
(I looked very closely at the cover to see if the characters were white-washed. I don't think they are, but the background is very red, so it could go either way. Smart thinking, Scholastic.)
But a few chapters into the book, I was settled in. Yes, it's definitely written for a younger audience. The phrase "totally cool" pops up a lot. An old man uses the phrase "Kick butt." (I cannot imagine any old person in India ever saying that.) But hey, the hero is thirteen years old and the old man is almost 5,000 years old. I cut some slack. Because this book is pretty impressive on many levels.
Ash(oka) Mistry is the star of this novel. He's a chubby 13-year-old who won serious Aarti points by referencing Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who and The Lord of the Rings throughout the course of this book. He's a gamer and a geek, and he's the one that Chadda chose to be a reincarnation of Rama in our times. LOVE.
Anyway, Ash's uncle is a university professor who specializes in the ancient city of Harappa, an Ancient Cradle of Civilization, if you remember your history. One day, an eccentric British multi-millionaire, Lord Savage, offers Ash's uncle a lot of money to work exclusively for him to unearth the secrets of Harappa and make people more aware of this brilliant ancient civilization. But Lord Savage creeps Ash out, and he isn't sure that the money makes up for the disturbing reality of being under Savage's thumb. And after Ash stumbles upon a gold arrowhead with supernatural powers, it seems like the whole world is after him.
What makes The Savage Fortress so cool is the way that Chadda weaves Hindu mythology into the plot. Ash himself is very British, but the story takes place in India and the forces that influence the story are very Indian. If you go into this story knowing nothing about the Ramayana, that's fine, but you will not end this book without knowing the major points. But Chadda goes beyond this. Why did Rama act the way that he did? What happened after the story ended? I really enjoyed the way Chadda continued the story and incorporated it into Ash's life and the modern world. So many of his characters were influenced by Hindu mythology, even in just their names, and it was fantastic to read. For example, Ash is referential to Rama - his name, Ashoka, is that of another great emperor of India who chose peace over dominance. Ash's younger sister Lakshmi has a name very similar to Rama's younger brother Lakshmana. His friend Parvati is named after the wife/consort of the god Shiva, who is often depicted with a cobra around his neck and who can often be referred to as Kali. And the goddess Kali was the most complex in this whole story, I think. Chadda doesn't ignore the fact that Hindu mythology - epics and stories - has both a very bright, fun side and a very dark and disturbing side. While he doesn't delve into the specifics of why the Ramayana can be so controversial today (hint: It's because of Sita's fate), he does point out that Rama, the hero, does not get a happy ever after ending.
He also uses Kali, the goddess of death, to explore the idea of power as a force for good or evil. Power itself can do nothing without intent and a vehicle to commit an act. Similarly, Kali can only act through others and can either raise a person up or corrupt him completely.
I could go on and on about the symbolism present in this book. I admit that I was pretty surprised at the depths that this novel explores even while staying fun and focused on its intended audience. I didn't realize until I started reading this just how much I craved a book like this. I loved reading a book and feeling like I was on familiar footing with the mythology and symbolism and food and geography and culture. And really, Indian history is ripe for fantasy fiction, so I'm very, very glad that Sarwat Chadda went there for inspiration.
The Savage Fortress is a book targeted at younger readers, so if you're an adult, you may not enjoy it as much because of some scenes and themes that feel very childish. But I found it to be a much deeper read than I expected, and I really appreciate Chadda's willingness to bring to light both the positives and negatives of Indian culture. Definitely looking forward to more in this series!
Note: This review is based on an advance reader's copy. I received a copy of this book for free to review.
This review is posted as part of the A More Diverse Universe Reading Tour.