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The Familiars of Fantasy

Sampurna Chattarji

By Payal Dhar
Young Zubaan, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 329 & pp. 324, Rs. 295.00 each

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 11 November 2007

Payal Dhar’s fantasy novels A Shadow in Eternity and The Key of Chaos tell the story of Maya Subramaniam, a twelve-year old girl who lives a normal boring life in Bangalore, until one day an eerily tall man called Noah arrives to tell her that she is meant for greater things, she being a Preferred and he her Watcher. Transported via the Portal Road to the Eternal City, she learns from the High Council that she is the youngest person Summoned to train to be a Defender of the Sands of Time, which, if they ever ran out, would mean the end of Reality as Maya knows it. Puzzled at first, Maya succumbs to the temptation of a life devoted to something ‘meaningful’ but especially at the idea of learning the powers of Illusion, Healing and Combat. And so she agrees to be inducted and signs her name in the Book of Preferred, literally signing the pact with Noah in blood. What follows is part quest and part coming-of-age novel.   Dhar calls up all the familiars of fantasy—a Prophecy that could mean the undoing of the world; the preservers versus the destroyers, in this case an anarchist sect called the Sai’adyin, or the Warriors of the Shadow; a secret (in this case the Key of Chaos) and the Chosen One (Maya, Lev or Yazid) who will wield the secret to good or evil effect. The notion of the Link between a Watcher and his or her Preferred is similar to master-fantasist Philip Pullman’s idea of the daemon in His Dark Materials trilogy. Just as it is taboo in Pullman’s universe for a person to touch another person’s daemon (which takes an animal shape), in Dhar’s schema, it is taboo to discuss the Link, or abuse it to read each other’s minds. Clearly, the connection between the body and its animating spirit, the bridge between parallel worlds is one that fascinates fantasy writers across cultures.   What is disappointing about Dhar’s novels is that she never really succeeds in actualizing alternative landscapes the way say Ursula le Guin and Tolkien do, so vividly. Dhar makes her Halvard Castle functional in a way that seems determined to go against enchantment, and yet in that functionality she forsakes the opportunity to evoke the glorious materiality of another world. Her strengths lie instead in a keen ...

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