Varanasi: holy city of the Ganges.
In this land of ancient temples, incense and snake charmers…
Where the monsters and heroes of the past come to life…
One slightly geeky boy from our time…
IS GOING TO KICK SOME DEMON ASS.
Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage's masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…
One of my faults as a reviewer is that I can occasionally be prone to exaggeration. I can't help myself - if I have loved a book so much I want to shout about it and try to get everyone else just as excited about reading it. However, in my long list of reviews there are some statements that some may feel are exaggerations, but I still stand by them. These include:
- Department 19 by Will Hill is the best action horror book I have ever read (well it was until I read its sequel).
- Any new release by Sarwat Chadda is cause for celebratory street parties and church bells to be rung across the land.
And now I am about to add another one to this list:
- Sarwat's new book, Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, could possibly be one of the most important children's books published in 2012.
How's that for a sweeping statement? Let me explain why I believe this to be so. Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is a fantasy story in the tradition of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson stories, but set in India and focusing on Indian mythology. So far so good, but the really important bit is that Ash Mistry, the hero of the story, is a British Asian. What, I hear you cry in disbelief? And no wonder you are surprised - I have been trying to think of an action hero in a popular modern children's book that isn't white and it is difficult. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Valkyrie Cain, Jamie Carpenter, Alex Rider - all white. Where is the literary role model for the significant number of South Asian children that live in Britain? I feel that the world of children's books has been crying out for a non-white hero and now Sarwat Chadda has delivered him in the form of Ash Mistry.
Let me tell you a little more about Ash. He's 13, mad about history, pretty geeky and a little chubby (and certainly not athletic). He is also totally fed up with holidaying in Varanasi, India - the heat, the flies, the cobras... despite his initial excitement about visiting his archaeologist uncle, now all he wants to do is go home to cool, fly-and-cobra-free West Dulwich where he can eat MacDonalds with his mates and spend hours playing Assassin's Creed.
As the story opens Ash, along with his 10 year old sister Lucky, is being dragged along to what he feels will be a boring party organised by his uncle's patron, the wealthy English aristocrat, Lord Savage. With boredom turning to despair Ash asks himself how he is going to survive another four weeks in India? The events of the next few hours have us wondering just how Ash and Lucky might expect to survive the next four days, let alone four weeks, as an overheard conversation and a near-fatal accident lead to Ash's aunt and uncle being murdered and he and his sister on the run from the demonic forces controlled by Lord Savage.
This is mythology, but not as the majority of children in the Western world know it. British kids are brought up with a fairly good knowledge of the Ancient Greek myths, and perhaps a smattering of the legends of Ancient Egypt. But Hindu mythology? These truly fascinating Indian legends go back much further than the Greek, Roman or Egyptian mythology and are littered with all of the things that kids love in books - great heroes, nasty villains, more demons than a whole series of Buffy, death, destruction, war, action, adventure. Sarwat Chadda has now taken these as his building blocks and created a fantastic story to rival any of Rick Riordan's.
I am a huge fan of Sarwat's Billi SanGreal books, and I guess I had expected something similar to them, but set in India. I couldn't have been more wrong. There is the same sublime quality of prose and the perfectly paced plotting, and the same array of great characters and extreme action scenes, but also a previously unrevealed talent for writing comedy. Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is aimed at a younger audience (9+) than Sarwat's previous stories, and has given him the chance to inject his sparkling (and wonderfully geeky) sense of humour into his writing. I have met Sarwat on a number of occasions and he has always come across as a (occasionally mischievously) funny guy, and this is now reflected in his written work.
Despite this being written for a younger audience than Devil's Kiss and Dark Goddess were, this book is still chock full of nasty moments that will have children wanting to hide behind cushions. Lord Savage and his demons are very nasty, and there are some moments (spiders!!!) that made my skin crawl. Again, kids will love it!
I remember talking with Sarwat over a beer and food following the Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival back in 2010. Sarwat told me about his labour of love, a story based on Indian mythology that many of his friends claimed he was mad for writing. Who is going to buy that? they asked him. That labour of love is now called Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress and full credit goes to Sarwat for persevering with it and HarperCollins for publishing it. This could finally be the book that puts Sarwat on the hot list of children's authors, where he so deserves to be. I have done a little research in writing this review and come up with the following (some of it is from wikipedia and therefore obviously accurate):"According to the 2001 UK Census, there were approximately 2,331,423 South Asians, constituting 4.0% of the population of the UK. Those who of Indian origin numbered 1,053,411."That's a lot of British kids who have been waiting patiently for a British Asian hero.
And there's more. There was also a recent article on The Bookseller daily newsletter about the Indian book market that stated:
"The Children's, Young Adult and Educational sector has also shown growth, up 27% in volume and 38% in value over the first half of 2011. The number one slot for the bestselling title was taken by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney (Puffin) which sold more than 17,000 copies, followed in second position by Inheritance: Book Four: Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini (Doubleday Children's) which sold more than 16,000 copies. The third, fourth and fifth positions in the chart were also taken by Wimpy Kid titles."
I do not know if Sarwat has an Indian publishing deal yet but it can surely only be a matter of time?
I predict big things for Sarwat Chadda over the next few years. in the UK Puffin Books christened Rick Riordan The Myth Master. Rick had better watch out as there is a new master of myth in town and he fully deserves that crown. Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is published in the UK by HarperCollins on 1st March. My thanks go to the publisher for sending me a copy to review. Keep watching this space as Sarwat will be joining us in a few weeks for a special guest post.