The Manticore's Secret: a review

(No spoilers, so don't worry)

Strangely enough, the successes of The Manticore's Secret by Samit Basu stem from its failures.

In the Book Three (the first half of the book) we are introduced to several new characters who will undoubtedly play an important part in this book or the next. As in The Simoqin Prophecies, their introduction is amusing and often studded with allusions which you may or may not get, but enjoy nevertheless. Samit has also written some delightful descriptive passages and attempted to fully flex his literary muscles; however the only problem is with that is that unlike Simoqin, there is much more description than action, and too many characters (though they are all important) are introduced into the story. While this might work in a movie and Samit's writing is very pictorial, a book is a much slower medium and too many switches between characters doesn't really seem to work; for me, instead of simulating pace, it ended up killing the continuity. By the time I was at pg.280, I forgot what had happened to Thog, the barbarian with the loincloth with a mind of its own, and had to go back to see where we'd left him. This sort of thing happened on quite a few occasions, and it was a little irritating. I had a similar problem with LOTR, so I don't know if it's the book, or just me. I really didn't enjoy the first half of the book and had to read it in small bits over ten days. Some parts though, beat the The Simoqin Prophecies (and several other books), when read in isolation:

The part where Behrim is being chased by the pack of wolves is the most memorable part of the book and reveals that Samit is capable of the macabre as well. It is very intense and humourless (otherwise, humour pervades the entire Gameworld series, so far), and has you fearing the worst. It reminded me, though I don't think that was his inspiration, of Saki's The Interlopers where Saki takes one from fear to relief and hope, and then does something completely unexpected. I've re-read the Behrim chase three times, loved every word of it, and still shuddered every time.

There is also a matrix-like attack on the Citizen's fortress at Kol with some excellent battle sequences and an introduction to the ways of the shapeshifters. I particularly loved the verbal exchange between the ravian woman and The Silver Dagger who had, until then, seemed a master of his art, and almost invincible even though he didn't possess any magical abilities:

She raised her arm and his dagger flew back into her hand. She smiled kindly at him.
'Coward,' he spat.
'Corpse,' she replied.


Of course, you have to know about the Silver Dagger to feel the full impact of that exchange. The shapeshifters were very interesting and MPD and personality hangovers were a great idea, but I found most of the exchanges between Red's multiple personalities very very irritating and tedious, until the third personality arrives on the scene.

A lot more happens which complicates the first half of the novel, but that's where the best part begins - the second half is much more relaxed and a better read. Everything falls into place rather swiftly and without many switches, which gives Book Four (the second half of The Manticore's Secret) a much better flow. Book Four is more of a page-turner and the just the thought "I wonder how they'll get out of this mess?" keeps you going. This, of course, depended largely on Book Three, so the successes depend entirely on the confusion created.

The Manticore's Secret is the second book of the Gameworld Series, and Samit seems to have used the interaction between Sambo and his master from the first book as a starting point for the justification of the title "Gameworld". Unfortunately, the God sequences are all in italics and that renders the entire section (which seems unimportant and deliberate, in any case) mostly unreadable. On a second reading (which was sometimes necessary), one was left wishing that there was some way these could have been un-italicised.

I particularly liked the dragon sequences. One of things I noticed was that Samit fully describes the impact of the dragons as they take off. He's taken care of detailing quite a few of the little things, including the impact on Kirin because he bears the burden of the Gauntlet; I've never been fond of dragons, but they're such nice and obedient lizards here, especially when Kirin has the Gauntlet that controls them, on his arm.

I would recommend The Manticore's Secret as much for its truly-evil-and-sickening portions (though there are just two, they are sublime and shudder-inducing) as the humourous ones (innumerable). I suspected that the second truly-evil-and-sickening incident would take place, and was left smiling and shuddering at the same time when it happened.

There are fuzzy little creatures with beady eyes that reminded me of the seven dwarves (you know, the ones that didn't do Snow White), but I don't want to elaborate any further on their activities, since that is one of the books most interesting mysteries, and related to a theory that I really liked. In fact, I don't really want to give anything away about the more important and much-more-fun Book Four. Excellent one-on-one battles, the Manticore's a funny and sick cat (you can almost smell his stench), and the knights were great fun, as was the cross-dressing Hero. Also liked the fight in the labyrinth, and I-heart-Steel-Bunz. Quite a few twists are unexpected, it's always a nice surprise when you realise that things didn't happen as you'd predicted.

There is also something far more serious which Samit is obviously flirting dangerously with - the ambiguity of what is good and evil. Though he hasn't spelt it out, you're left wondering about which of the characters is truly evil: Some of them do things that we perceive as wrong, but are purely instinctive (is a leech evil?) Others do things we feel are wrong, but they are bound by tradition, customs and habit - are they evil or blind? Then there are characters who would be heroes if they win the war, and villians of they lose. In fact, I don't hate the ravians because it is only natural for them to seek to dominate the world that they live in; that would be the case with most intelligent species; it is true of religous groups, countries and races. Samit also criticises the caste system, which is perhaps his only display of prejudice; I say this because there is no ambiguity in his criticism, unlike the other issues which are left for us, the readers, to decide. Though the story is full of satirical references, and there are laughs-aplenty, the undercurrents have a much greater impact, at least- they had a much greater impact on me. I have focused here on the more serious things, unlike in the Simoqin review .

For me, the true test of a book is not whether or not it's a page turner, but whether or not I am aware of the fact that I am turning the pages. I finished the second half of this book in three or four hours, and didn't realise for the most of it that that I was reading it.

The Manticore's Secret isn't a stand-alone, though. You need to have read The Simoqin Prophecies to understand a lot of this book, since some incidents in The Simoqin Prophecies have a direct impact in this one. You might even have to refer back to Simoqin a few times (I had to), but Simoqin was such a wonderful read, so it was worth it. The Manticore's Secret is almost as much fun as The Simoqin Prophecies, but it's a lot more than that. Both the books are my favourites for the year.

There are some other things about the book that I wanted to talk about, but you've probably already read this.

[Psst.: What would I like to see in The Unwaba Revelations?

1. One of the goody-goody characters should turn evil. Most fiction has predictable characters, or characters that stay consistent. Preferably, it shouldn't be Kirin.... (Edit: Spoiler for Simoqin deleted)
2. Non italicised God sequences
3. Fewer switches. But since all the main characters have already been introduced, it seems unlikely that many more will be introduced in the next book.
4. Steel-Bunz becomes the ruler of Obiyalis. (He's my favourite character. Almost said 'Yay!' when he appeared later in the book.). Heh.
5. Give the Kaos Butterfly something important to do. So far, it's just a prop, like the Citizen's pet was in Simoqin.
6. I second Jai's suggestion. More sex please, we're Indian. :P

Also, if there is a movie, Natalie Portman, and not Kiera Knightley, should play Maya]

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4 Comments:
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Thank you for the detailed review. Now I actually have to read both.

Natalie P was at Harvard with a (very) young friend of mine. Apparently she is sharp. Good reason to watch her rather than Kiera, though the latter is prettier.

J.A.P.

December 28, 2005 10:14 pm  
Blogger Nikhil Pahwa said...

Apparently she is sharp. Good reason to watch her rather than Kiera

Agreed. Ever since Closer, I've wanted her, well, closer. *grin*

December 29, 2005 12:18 am  
Blogger Pip Squeak said...

Just for the record, my favourite character is the unwaba. And the same goes for samit as well....

And you're right. As much as we all would like to see lesser number of italicized god sequences, that seems to be the whole point of the trilogy now. Behrim's chase was indeed one of the few gripping portions of the book. i myself appreciated the macabre too, but it shifted to the back of my mind as more irritating characters unfolded.

I myself posted a review on my blog, which actually crticized the book very acrimoniously. So i think your review will restore the balance. I'll post a link to your post on my blog as soon as possible.

January 02, 2006 3:21 am  
Blogger Pip Squeak said...

Oh, and i seriously doubt they'll ever make a movie out of it... Westerners were never into Indian mythology( Roberto Callaso excluded!).

What they might make out of it is a cartoon show.....

January 02, 2006 3:29 am  

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