In 2016, Achala Upendran wrote that Indian science fiction and fantasy writers were working on stories that went beyond retelling epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, and that mythological aspects in Indian storytelling were a burden of heritage. Upendran uses this heritage, albeit not as a burden, to create a magical, fantastical world in her debut novel Sultanpur Chronicles: Shadowed City, which is a story about djinns, rakshasas, flying carpets and a bloody war that still haunts the fictional kingdom of Sultanpur.
The author presents a multi-faceted narrative that follows different characters whose storylines converge later. The novel begins in a world 300 years after the wars between humans and rakshasas. There is peace in the Sultanpur kingdom, but it is closely guarded with a rather familiar taste of censorship of books and restrictions on magic and access to spells. Even the magic used on flying carpets is tightly regulated.
Rakshasas have been banished to a different realm. Speaking about them is forbidden, and locals in the world of Sultanpur claim to have never seen one in centuries. But, when messengers from the king’s court get wind of a journalist from Sultanpurian, the kingdom’s tabloid, digging deep into the family tree of the king’s commander (his editor sold him out!) it sets off a chain of events that threaten the tranquillity of this world.
The story is guided by planned but somewhat reckless decisions made by various people. Upendran’s characters are fascinating and they all possess the common trait of curiosity. Roza is a talented woman who serves as the Princess’s handmaiden, but a yearning for spells pushes her to summon a rakshasi to the human realm which lands her in deep trouble. As for her brother Ismail, he sells lamps and is a part of a network of book smugglers in Sultanpur.
Mudra is a figure of royalty with a shifty past in which he served in the army and now works in the Sultanpurian. There are of course villains in the story too – a dark, vengeance-hungry mage quite reminiscent of Voldemort from the Harry Potter series, and the mage’s protégé who equally thirsts for power, but her character lacks depth and her motivation is not clearly defined in the novel.
I do not know if Upendran could foresee herself breaking away from the tradition of retelling mythology to craft fresh, compelling stories when she wrote her response to this article two years ago. But with her debut novel, she has proven critics of Indian fantasy wrong. Her writing is able to transport the reader to the exciting, dark and unknown world that bustles about in Sultanpur.
We get a sense of what it is like to walk about in the king’s blooming gardens, to drink in one of Sultanpur’s shady bars and to mistakenly walk into dingy lanes while chasing mysterious shadows. There is also a fair share of enchantment with the magic practiced and the effect of casting powerful spells which the author vividly describes.
However, many loose strands hang over in the story and it is still unclear why wars were waged between humans and rakshasas. Characters shudder when they think of the wars, but the reader does not know enough to empathise with them. Some of the characters, vaguely etched, are in need of a compelling backstory to make them more intriguing to the reader. One doesn’t get a real sense of satisfaction as the last page approaches because of unresolved plot points and unclear steps taken by characters. Maybe there is unfinished business, but the reader cannot gauge that for sure.
The beginnings of a new world
In the expanding realm of Indian fantasy, Upendran’s debut seems to be setting the context for a broader story she wants to tell her readers. Shadowed City lays the foundation of a world she is still building. There are beautifully illustrated maps at the beginning of the book which also reflect on the plot’s uncharted territories. And it is in creating this unique world where Upendran has succeeded as a writer and storyteller.
This book is the work of one of an emerging generation of Indian writers who are unafraid to explore, imagine and gamble with stories that take Indian fantasy forward rather than tirelessly look for new dimensions in battered mythological narratives. Upendran’s name is one to watch out for as Indian readers still navigate their way through books on the unlit shelves of fantasy and science fiction.
The novel is seemingly an introduction to a world with a certain charm, dotted with palaces, and with dark forces at play. Perhaps the author will delve deeper into the unseen corners and layers of Sultanpur and illuminate them in subsequent stories.
The Sultanpur Chronicles: Shadowed City, Achala Upendran, Hachette.