Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is similar to several other fantasies I've read, where there are multiple levels to the story and multiple ways they can be interpreted. Alok Mukherjee is a history professor in Kalkota, India. He is approached by a man who claims to be a werewolf, or more precisely, a half-werewolf. He wants the professor to transcribe some manuscripts for him, which he himself has endeavored to translate from the original scrolls. The stories in the scrolls were purportedly written by the stranger's father and mother. Even at the end I suspect all of it is in Alok's imagination, even when he claims the stranger finally presents him with the original scrolls, which seem to be made from human skin.
Werewolf is just a generic term for the type of creature the stranger claims to be, with several other similar mythological beings identified from other parts of the world. For almost the entire book the stranger refuses to give his name, but later tells Alok to call him Izrail, even though he claims he was never given a name by either of his parents. If the scrolls are to be believed, his father was a shape-shifter named Fenrir, a kveldulf out of Norse mythology. His mother, Cyrah, was human, a citizen of the Mughal empire of the early 17th Century. Her story begins near Agra when she encounters Fenrir, who rapes her with the intent of fathering a child. Fenrir had been traveling with two other shape-shifters of different origins. His obsession with Cyrah causes friction between them, he manipulates Gévaudan into killing Makedon, then he flees. Cyrah recognizes Gévaudan the next time she sees him, and together they set out to find Fenrir in order to exact revenge. The narrative goes back and forth between conversations Alok has with the stranger, and the different portions of the stories from the scrolls. The first part was written by Fenrir to Cyrah, the second part by Cyrah to her son. There are also segments where the stranger tells Alok of his own experiences, but it is easy to believe he might just be a clever hypnotist. Or, as I said in the first paragraph, all of it could be fabricated by Alok.
The myths about werewolves and other creatures, even including Jekyll & Hyde, are about the conflicting natures within the mind of man; good vs. evil, benevolence and compassion contrasted with base animal desires. Is it possible Alok fantasized his encounters with Izrail while contemplating a book he wanted to write, at the same time agonizing over the turmoil of his own life? Alok is either bisexual, or gender-fluid/non-binary, but I admit I'm not conversant on all the terms relating to the gender spectrum. Portions of the book are Alok's first-person reflections, and it appears he greatly enjoys the sexual relations with his fiancé, although she breaks off the engagement when she learns of his affairs with other men. Izrail's conflicts with his parents might be reflections of a strained relationship between Alok and his parents. The visions Alok experiences of Izrail's life include the times Izrail faced-off with his father and his mother, both of whom he defeated and consumed. If everything in the scrolls actually happened, and if the visions Izrail imposed upon Alok were also real, we can assume the sexual encounters of Alok and Izrail also happened. Izrail, Fenrir, and Gévaudan all talk about how their first selves (the way they appear to others) could change at will, depending on which human they had consumed and wished to emulate. Their second selves were their true selves, the demon inside. Izrail said he felt the presence of both his mother and father inside him, along with every other human he had consumed. After their affair, Alok began to envision himself as Cyrah. Was that only in his imagination? Was it all just in his imagination? Was it all just a conflict between Alok's first and second selves?
The prose is at times eloquent and evocative in its descriptions of Indian cities and customs, at others spare and harsh in its depictions of the shape-shifters' brutal lives. Historical commentary on India include mentions of the beginnings of construction of the Taj Mahal, which dates it to 1632; a journey to the city of Fatehpur Sikri, abandoned in the century prior to that; the myth of Bonbibi in the Sundarbans, whom Izrail implies was his mother Cyrah riding the second self of Gévaudan rather than the tiger of conventional stories. One could enjoy this as an historical fantasy by taking everything at face value. Or read between the lines as I did, where it becomes a dark, psychological fantasy. In either case, it is a well-written and compelling story. Recommended.
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