Book Review: Bhimsen by Prem Panicker

Title: Bhimsen
Author: Prem Panicker
Year of Publication:
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.):
4.12
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
3

Some Spoilers Are Bound To Be Around

bhimsencoverart

Plot Description: A retelling of another retelling of the epic poem Mahabharatha, from the perspective of the second brother – Bhim.

Let me start from the top. The Mahabharath is an epic poem, somewhat similar to the Illiad or the Odyssey. Like with those poems, there have been numerous versions of the Mahabharath, numerous perspectives and retellings, and along the way, new myths and legends are continuously being tacked onto the end of it. Panicker’s story is a loose translation of an older version written in Malayalam by M.T. Vasudevan Nair called Randamoozham (Second Chance).

What Panicker and Nair both attempt is to engage with the myths and legends that surround the stories about the Mahabharath, and to reimagine the story shorn of these trappings. Dispelling the myths results in a truth laid out that now seems stranger than fiction to those of us who grew up reading about miracles and magical weapons.

The part of the Mahabharath that Bhimsen deals with refers to the lives of the two sets of cousins who eventually form the opposing sides in the Great War (called the Mahabharath). There’s The Good Side (sort of) who are known as the Pandavas, and The Bad Side (mostly) who are known as the Kauravas. The five Pandavas and the 101 Kauravas are children of a pair of half brothers. The former’s father was pale and splotchy (and allegedly impotent), while the latter’s father (the King) was blind.

Each character in the Mahabharath is well known for at least one trait that ends up defining them. Bhim is the strong one. His younger brother Arjun is the ultimate hero – a handsome warrior who wins everything, fears nothing, and leaves swooning women in his wake. His eldest (illegitimate) brother, Karna is the generous one, the misunderstood one, the most cruel one (or the one who was also in love with Draupadi), depending on which version of the story you read. Draupadi is the ultimate wife, and Kunti the ultimate mother. And there is the Pandava King, Yudhishtir – the just one.

Bhim is the second of the five ‘good’ brothers, and his defining characteristic is his strength. He’s often described as loyal and single-minded to a fault, always willing to assist his brothers or the wife they all share in whatever they need to do. Due to their father’s impotency, these five brothers are said to have been the children of various Gods from the Hindu pantheon – the result of a boon offered to their mother when she was younger.

This brings me to the women – Kunti, mother of the Pandavas, and Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas. Yes, she’s married to all five of them. It’s complicated. Draupadi – never really cast as much of a weak woman to begin with – is depicted by Panicker as a bloodthirsty person, someone so filled with bloodlust that it’s pretty much her biggest turn on. She adores tales of heroics, and portioned out her love for her husbands on the basis of their heroism (or depending on whether she needed to manipulate them into something or the other).

Kunti, another master manipulator, is also shown to be ruthless in her efforts to gain the throne – the ultimate prize. It is Kunti that hid away a sixth son (the eldest) because she hadn’t been married at the time of his birth. It is Kunti who refrains from claiming that son – Karna – when he needs it the most, which means the eldest Pandava ends up fighting on the other side of the war. It is Kunti that ensures that all five of her sons marry the woman considered the most beautiful ‘in all the land’, so envy of Draupadi will not tear them apart.

As you might well expect from a myth stripping, cynical work, all these characters are separated from hundreds of years of white washing. What you get is a sad picture painted from an unflinching perspective. A Yudhishtir who is hypocritical in his justice, a guy who’s essentially pretending to be a lawyer after having watched too many episodes of Boston Legal. (Ugh, Denny Crane). An Arjun who’s arrogant and prideful, and becomes bitchy when that pride is injured. A Draupadi who’s viciously making the best of having to share her life with five different men.

Bhim is (obviously) the one who gets the most sympathetic deal of the lot. With him cast in the role of the protagonist, we quickly realize that we never heard much of Bhim’s version of the story. His mother makes him leave his first wife and son behind him in the forest, and he later ends up fighting the guy who took care of them afterwards. He describes ordinary fights that were so embellished in the retelling that his enemies ended up nine feet tall and with tusks for teeth. He talks about his desire for Draupadi, and his shame at desiring her, and his confusion because as her husband, surely he’s allowed to desire her?

Sub plots that never seemed very important are infused with new life in Bhimsen. The whole book is a conspiracy theory, a suggestion that the Mahabharath is just a case of the winning side getting to write history. For someone who’s already read a different, more conventional version of the Mahabharath, the book provides an exciting new perspective. And for someone who’s never read the Mahabharath, this is a chance to get to know the story without having to deal with magical weapons and miracle births.

“And so, somewhere down below he wandered still, the man who in the dead of night had set fire to the Pandava camp and, with sword in hand, mercilessly cut down every one of Draupadi’s children.

My work is not done yet, Bhima decided; it will not be over as long as Ashwathama remains alive.”

The book ends on a surprisingly realistic note – unlike his brothers, who embark on the long road to salvation, Bhim does not seem to have learned anything about the higher lessons of spirituality. He chooses to leave his story on an open note –not a new note, but the same old tale of revenge and bloodshed. (I would have found it more interesting if he’d finally gone searching for his first wife, but for him, it’s still about Draupadi – just as everything in his life so far has always been about Draupadi.)

Panicker carries a cynical book out to it’s thoroughly cynical ending, and I’m glad he did, because I might not have noticed if he’d snuck in a sweet fairy tale ending there. Because that’s what we want and expect from endings, regardless of what the story was.

Next: Discworld #1 – The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

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Book Review: Shifters #5 – Shift

Title: Shift
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: 5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.23
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

shift

Plot Description: Whilst dealing with the aftermath of an attack by rival Alpha (and current head of the Council) Calvin Malone, the Sanders Pride finds itself attacked by a flock of Thunderbirds – supernatural creatures who are half human, half bird. Faythe finds herself taking a road trip with Kaci, Marc and Jace on a diplomatic mission to see if they can get the thunderbirds to stop trying to massacre their Pride.

In fact, the Thunderbirds are the only things Shift has going in its favour. It’s not, of course, the first time a new species has been introduced into the Shifters universe. Once the we, the readers, got over the shock of reading about werecats, the werewolves were mentioned. Briefly. Apparently they’re all extinct, but even a blessed mention is more than sufficient for the exhausted fantasy reader’s mind, which keeps trying to insist that we’re actually supposed to be reading about werewolves out of sheer habit.

The bruins – or rather, one Bruin (singular) – made their first appearance in Pride. Half bear, half human, solitary and rather given to hibernation, and yet the bruins are portrayed as far more human than the werecats who greatly outnumber them and are far more sociable to boot (in as far as ‘sociable’ refers to not attempting to kill everything that moves on impulse).

The Thunderbirds fall on the end of the spectrum directly opposite to that which is occupied by the bruins. They’re more fluid in their morphing abilities, not requiring time to shift from one form to another, and fully capable of going from human to bird (or vice versa) at an altitude of approximately Top-of-a-huge-freakin-mountain meters.

This means they’re far more removed from human civilization than are the other shifter species, possibly because there’s no way you can integrate when your young spend most of their time navigating that peculiar niche of life reserved for those sporting a wing and an arm each at any given point of time. That is to say, young thunderbirds spend all their time in a constant state of flux which they haven’t learned to control yet. Bit of a dead giveaway, that.

I found the careful construction of Thunderbirds as a species and a society far more interesting and far less annoying than I did the werecats. It’s not every day that you encounter a group that retains its status as The Other so perfectly, even after all the shades of grey have been pencilled in.

Faythe demonstrates some qualities in Shift that are supposed to be diplomatic in nature, and she doesn’t do too badly. This step forward in the character development department is, however, largely obscured by the dynamics of her botched relationships with both Marc and Jace and by the ugly rearing head of patriarchal oppression that isn’t bothering to conceal its views behind an insincere smile anymore.

The ugliness of the truths upon which werecat Prides have been built are hammered into the mind of the reader in Shift with about as much subtlety as is demonstrated by a blunt axe. This trend carries forward into Alpha and makes you want to keep quoting Faythe all the time:

“Don’t you bad guys ever get tired of the same old routine? You threaten rape, I kick your ass, and evil is defeated again. Couldn’t we shake things up? How ’bout you try to smother me with my fluffy pink pillow instead?”
– 
Faythe Sanders, Alpha, Shifters #6

As this self aware quote illustrates, the heavy handed, black and white misogyny – a total contrast from the benevolent misogyny depicted in Books 1 and 2, and to a certain extent Book 3 as well – turns the Sanders Pride’s enemies into cartoonish rapist villains. This has the simultaneous effect of also white washing Faythe’s Pride. The Pride under Greg Sanders’ leadership, it is suggested, has always been a place where women are respected and revered. Examples put forward in favour of this argument include Greg grooming his daughter for the post of Alpha and the fact that Faythe’s mother used to sit on the council next to her husband.

Good points, both. Except it’s hard to see how exactly Greg groomed his daughter for command, apart from giving her a job as an enforcer (a job she landed after much negotiation and by threatening to run away from home multiple times) and allowing her to take over the planning of a couple of attacks in the previous books. Nowhere does Greg consider it important that he teach his daughter how to be a female Alpha. Unlike, say, Marc Ramos, who is his second choice for Alpha, Faythe cannot beat every challenger by dint of sheer physical strength. It was important for Greg to show her that being Alpha isn’t – contrary to popular belief – about your abilities to pound everyone else into the ground, but to be the master of every situation.

As for her mother’s seat on the council, Karen Sanders did take a seat at the head of the Council – by her husband’s side. That is to say, after her marriage and motherhood had deemed her respectable enough to be tolerated on the council. And then she stopped doing that once she had Faythe, who was a handful and needed all her time and attention.

On the other hand, a notable example against this argument is the fact that Greg and Karen tried everything in their power to get their daughter married by the time she’d barely hit eighteen, including locking her up in a cage. Another notable example is the rampant slut shaming that goes on amongst Sanders’ enforcers (such as Faythe’s brothers) and the fact that Marc’s abusive behaviour is accepted by everybody (including Faythe) as fairly normal.

Speaking of Marc and abusive behaviour brings me to what I was talking about in my review of Prey – namely Jace Hammond and his approach to relationships and prospective Alpha material. Unlike Marc, Jace doesn’t go around trying to mark his territory. When he wants to make out with Faythe, it’s not to prove a point, but because he genuinely wants to be with her. And when he’s aggressive towards Marc, it’s not because he thinks Marc needs to get off his porch, so to speak, but because he’s concerned that Marc’s short temper might result in him hurting Faythe.

In short, Jace is the only one who seems to even register the fact that Marc is an abusive piece of s**t. Sadly enough, he only realized this after he got together with Faythe.

“This isn’t about you….” “Well, it should be!” he shouted, and I flinched. “Everything I do is about you, and I want the reverse to be true, too.”
I wiped more tears, my throat aching with words that would only make this worse. “What, you need a reminder? That’s what he was doing, right? And now you smell like him. You probably taste like him. You should taste like me.…”
He was on me before I could even catch my breath, his mouth bruising mine, and after that, breathing didn’t seem so important. 

This quote (and the ensuing sex scene) [from Alpha, Book #6] was put up as the sexiest scene in literary history by someone. Personally, I don’t know how the words ‘flinched’ and ‘sexiest’ can even exist in the same plane.

Shift could have represented a great leap in character development for the young female protagonist of this series, but unfortunately, all one ends up seeing is a heroine who is severely disadvantaged both by patriarchal forces and notions, as well as by her own bad taste in men. The weak facade of an Alpha growing in strength and wisdom falls away almost as soon as a discerning eye is turned on it.

Next: Shifters #6 – Alpha

Book Review: Shifters #4 – Prey

Title: Prey
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.21
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

prey

Plot Description: Faythe, Marc and a couple of other characters are attacked by a group of strays while on neutral territory, and Marc goes missing soon after that. Prey chronicles the ensuing manhunt and the list of never-ending problems that rival Alpha Calvin Malone manages to lay at their door, both directly and indirectly.

Prey provides a very good set up for the next two books, complete with a high stakes finale. It also proves a turning point for Jace Hammond, who is the Adrian Ivashkov of the Shifters universe.

We need to talk about Jace. My reviews of the first three books in this series were too taken up with Faythe’s complex personality, and how it fits into this incredibly contradictory and patriarchal universe, and with Marc Rants. But now it’s time.

Jace Hammond is introduced in Stray via some mild sexual harassment. Well, it’s not technically harassment because Faythe didn’t really mind that this guy had suddenly turned up and put his arms around her, but I object to the fact that he expects she won’t mind. Standard of enthusiastic consent and all that.

Jace is promptly pulled away by two of Faythe’s brothers – Ethan (everybody’s favourite brother) and someone else. Jace protests that had it been Marc, they wouldn’t have done that, and they counter it by saying that Faythe would have taken care of Marc herself. It’s notable that Faythe’s agency only comes into play when there’s a dude they don’t approve of in the picture.

Jace, it soon turns out, is the anti-Marc. In fact, his persistence is the only thing he has in common with Marc in the romance department. Jace is respectful. Jace gives the fact that Faythe is someone with real opinions a lot of importance. Jace doesn’t walk around beating people up just because they’re encroaching on what he sees as his territory. This is because Jace recognizes the fact that Faythe is a woman and not actually territory, and that she has the right to take her own decisions.

Jace also has every bone in his body broken (more than once) simply because he dared speak to Faythe. Thanks a lot, Marc. You’re clearly ideal Literary Boyfriend material, right up there with Christian freaking Grey.

When Faythe and Marc resumed their abusive relationship, Jace was understandably bummed, but didn’t really do anything that would make him stand out in the ranks of ‘Good’ Literary Boyfriends – like inflict grievous body harm on Marc because he thinks she ought to belong to her. The points in his favour just seem to keep piling up, but that’s actually because the standard’s pretty freakin’ low.

In Prey, with Marc exiled and therefore not around to protect his territory, Faythe and Jace end up getting drunk and hooking up. I’m honestly not a fan of the ‘Guy gets his s**t together for a girl’ trope, but that’s basically what happened here, (and with Adrian Ivashkov) and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, Jace-wise. Suddenly, Jace is exploring a possible future he’d never imagined before – one that involves being Alpha-like enough to be able to marry Faythe. He changes. He’s suddenly more mature and responsible. Sadly, this also means he’s slightly more territorial – as is purported to befit an Alpha werecat. The difference is that Jace, unlike Marc, never lets his territorial instincts get in the way of Faythe’s agency.

This plot also allows Vincent to explore a subject close to my heart, albeit on a superficial level. With Faythe’s realization that she’s in love with both Marc and Jace comes the radical notion that it’s perfectly normal to love more than one person, and that that’s okay. In a society obsessed with monoamory, poly-amorous relationships rarely get the credit they deserve. And books 5 and 6 in this series take a look at some of the dynamics that would presumably be involved in a romance involving more than two people. While said study is admittedly more of a guide on what not to do, it still takes their relationship one step beyond the classic love triangle, and that’s something.

The pros of Prey are that it provides an action filled mystery and a thickening of the political plot, the better to explain the alliances formed in future books. The cons of this book are that the action is often slowed down by what can only be described as sheer stupidity on the part of the protagonists forming the hunting party for Marc. Oh, and that it features what can only be termed child abuse.

Kaci, the young werecat found in the previous book, is now living under the protection of the Sanders Pride. She’s extremely attached to Faythe, and follows her around all the time, hanging onto her every word and being extremely perceptive as to the dynamics of Faythe’s love triangle. But the one thing Kaci will not do is shift into cat form, and it has been repeatedly impressed on the reader that it’s important for the cats to shift regularly, lest they sicken and eventually die.

Traumatized by the fact that she had ended up killing several people while in cat form for the first time, Kaci refuses to shift. This does not, to put it delicately, have a good impact on her health.

As her de facto mentor, it’s Faythe’s job to talk Kaci into shifting. There’s also the option of medically inducing a shift, but Faythe refuses to allow this, citing a potential loss of Kaci’s trust. One would expect then, under the circumstances, that Faythe would put every effort into giving Kaci the therapy she needs and thereby getting her to shift.

This is precisely what Faythe does not do because she’s busy with enforcer work, and with missing Marc. And this is the point at which I stop making excuses for Faythe and call her an irresponsible idiot.

The mounting tension in this sub plot is meant to eventually pay off when Faythe talks Kaci into finally shifting, but this is honestly not the kind of plot that absorbs such a plot device. Being careless about the health and well being of minors under your care is not something to be taken lightly. Nor is it an easily forgivable offence.

As far as the plot is concerned, Prey provides a good set up for the final act of the story, but by itself, it’s bogged down by slow moving action sequences and slow thinking protagonists. Like with all the books in this series, it’s just interesting enough to make you wonder what happens next.

Next: Shifters #5 – Shift