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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Sons Of Darkness by Gourav Mohanty (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

 



Official Author Website
Order Sons Of Darkness over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Cover Reveal Q&A with Gourav Mohanty
 
OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Gourav Mohanty was born in Bhubaneswar, the City of Temples. A gold medallist from SLS, Pune, he currently practices law in Mumbai. He moonlights as a stand-up comic, a painter, and a blogger. As evident, his life always has many tabs open. A connoisseur of mythologies and momos, he has won numerous scholarships, one of which took him to the castles of Europe. Ever since, he has wanted to play medieval matchmaker by conjuring a world where Vedic India meets Italian Renaissance. Sons Of Darkness is his SFF debut. 
 
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: SOME BALLADS ARE INKED IN BLOOD.

Bled dry by violent confrontations with the Magadhan Empire, the Mathuran Republic simmers on the brink of oblivion. The Republic’s Leaders, Krishna and Satyabhama, have put their plans in motion within and beyond its blood-soaked borders, to protect it from annihilation. But they will soon discover that neither gold nor alliances last forever.

They are, however, not the only players in this game.

Mati, Pirate-Princess of Kalinga, must mend her ways if she is to be a good wife. But old habits die hard, especially when one habitually uses murder to settle scores. Karna, the gifted son of a lowborn charioteer, hopes to bury his brutal past, but finds that life is not generous in offering second chances. The crippled hero-turned-torturer Shakuni struggles in the maze of daggers, that is politics, leaving little time for him to plot the revenge he craves.

Alongside a cast of sinister queens, naive kings, pious assassins and predatory priests, these dubious heroes will converge where the Son of Darkness is prophesied to rise and break the World, even as forgotten Gods prepare to play their hand.
 
FORMAT/INFO: Sons Of Darkness is 668 pages long divided into several character-titled chapters (spread out over six sections) with a prologue and epilogue. The narration is in the third person omniscient view via Krishna, Shishupal, Karna, Princess Mati, Princess Draupadi, Masha, Nala, Shakuni & King Muchuk Und. This book is the first volume in The Rag Of Rta Series.

June 3, 2022 marked the US, UK & Indian e-book and paperback publication of Sons Of Darkness and it was published by Leadstart Publishing. Cover art & design is by Micaela Alcaino
 
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Once in a while (say around 10 years or so), you come across a book that makes you believe that it was written just for you. Gourav Mohanty’s debut novel Sons Of Darkness, is such a book and for an Indian SFF reader (like me), it couldn’t have come any sooner.

According to the author, this was his effort to bring something epic to the Indian SFF genre which has been relatively bereft so far (not discounting Samit Basu’s Gamesworld trilogy & Amish Tripathi’s works). However having read both the authors’ works. I can safely say this is definitely the first traditionally published, Indian Grimdark fantasy. Sons Of Darkness takes a lot of characters from the Mahabharata while thoroughly putting them in a secondary fantasy world inspired by A Song Of Ice And Fire & whilst retaining the Indian sensibilities. This is a uniquely written story that rewards both the eastern and western fantasy readers as it shocks and etches its own mark on the global SFF landscape.

The plot is a multi-faceted one and had a wide cast of characters as well. Beginning with Krishna, one of the Senators of the Mathuran republic and a Machiavellian character as cunning as his mythological counterpart. Shishupal is a claw in the service of the Magadhan empire and is a honorable man forced to play dishonourable games and activities. Karna, a Resht has gained the friendship of Prince Duryodhan of the Hastina Union and is forever in his debt. Pirate princess Mati fears no man and has plans of her own. They however depend on many people doing the right thing and that has never been the case. Shakuni, the master of spies of the union of Hastina is always in pain due to his tortured body but his mind is sharp as ever and it won’t stop him for doing the best for his nephew Duryodhan. We also meet Draupadi, the famed, fiery beauty of Panchal who is soon to learn that politics and passion do not overlap. Lastly there’s Nala who learns that above all fate is the cruelest master. There are a couple more POVs but I don’t wish to spoil the surprise about who they are and what their part is in this story.  

Here’s why I think this book is so unique. Firstly the worldbuilding, combining Indian mythology in a secondary fantasy world is hardly unique. But to do it in such a way to make the world feel so incredible, is a feat to be lauded. The readers will be pulled into this world called Aea that is deep as it is wide. Focusing on a large character cast and geo-political issues, the author one-ups his mentor George R.R. Martin by also having magic be a vital and active part of this world. There are also some wonderful science fictional aspects, which as an Indian mythological fan are not surprising. But to the western fantasy readers, this might be a tad surprising. However it fits within the confines of the world and makes sense entirely.

Secondly, the rich characterization makes this story even more spectacular. We get different POV characters and nearly all of them are from the epic of Mahabharata however, there are some new ones and some whose entire history and personalities have been altered beyond recognition. In this regards, I have to give kudos to the author for taking this bold step. It is very clear he has a final goal in mind and this book lays down the foundation stones quite brilliantly. The story is over 200K words and the first 30% of the book is spent carefully explaining the world and setting up the world scenario.

What I loved about the characters was how the author explored the class and geo-political dichotomies through their personal lives. Be it Karna and his rage at the classist issues in Aryavrat. Shishupal is a decent man caught up in a war and is forever striving to be honourable. Shakuni and Krishna are both strategists who are always striving to one up their opponents. Satyabhama’s character was a revelation as she’s shown to be an incredible warrior & leader who enthralls everyone. In this regards, she seemed like a perfect Gemmellian hero and kudos to the author for highlighting her as a character.  I loved how the author explored more of the world and past/future with Nala and Masha. Moreover, there’s a bit role played by Eklavya and I was over the moon with the author’s interpretation for him. Lastly, there’s many more side characters who are introduced within and will play a bigger role in the sequels (if they survive that is). One small thing I wish to mention is that while the Pandavas do make cameo appearances, they are not the focus of the story and do not get any POV appearances.

Next up the book has some tremendous action sequences that will astound. I can’t talk about them in detail because of spoilers but for those who have read the Mahabharata will know about the Swayamvar incident. However here the author twists expectations and truly gives us a chaotic fight that has to be read to be believed. Also a fine taste of the main archery showdown is provided. The climax is focused on a siege that is bloody and massively destructive, as we have come to expect in fantasy stories. Lastly there’s a one on one warrior duel that is very unexpected and possibly one that rivals the best written by David Gemmell.

I do not know if this was done on purpose but the author emulates his idol by giving us some terrific food descriptions. Which are fun to read and definitely are a highlight when its done (and it is sparingly so).

Lastly the best thing about this book is the incredible amount Hindu mythology and lore that author has vigorously inserted and utilized within. So many characters and events are referenced and mentioned that even I had to look them up. Now I am by no means an expert on Hindu mythology however I count myself decently knowledgeable. Hence I was very impressed with Gourav’s imagination and the plot twists he planned within. For non-desi readers, this won’t matter as they will be given an incredible Malazan-like experience. As they are exposed to a rich world that is multiple millennia old and has many, many secrets. All in all, this is a world building aficionado’s wildest dream come true and I can’t wait for the sequels to see more secrets being spilled.

In another nod to GRRM, the author plays with certain predictions and these play out in the auguries experienced by one of the POV characters. These are snippets of the future and it was fun to read them to see what is possibly being planned for the future.
 
For any drawbacks, I must say the first 30-40% are a bit slow-paced while the author sets up the main plot. In addition, the author has been influenced in a couple of dialogues from a few popular movies (for eg. Man Of Steel).

CONCLUSION: Sons Of Darkness is heralded as India’s first grimdark fantasy and I can heartily proclaim it true and more. Sons Of Darkness is an incredible debut that showcases the darkness of human hearts but also the heroic nature that resides within. It is a phenomenal fantasy story that heralds Gourav Mohanty & the rise of Indian fantasy on the world SFF stage. I can’t wait for the sequel Dance Of Shadows, don’t miss this debut. It’s the best one of 2022.

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