Funny, Complex, Imbalanced.

by Sören Heim

Sören reads The Simoqin Prophecies by Samit Basu. He finds it a balancing act between (not quite) pratchettesque fun, deconstructionist fantasy and jabs at PCRPGs. Sometimes it feels like a crossover between The Elder Scrolls and Monkey Island, but it has its great moments, too.
The Simoqin Prophecies by Samit Basu comes with an excessive amount of praise. It's supposed to be a "cross-cultural extravaganza" and "the most fun book ... this year" (that is, me being late as always: 2004). Or "An intelligent, inventive delight. It marks the arrival of a fresh and very original voice". This might actually indicate a great work (Pynchon's novels come with the same ridiculous amount of commendations), or the exact opposite - a text in need of the hype, advertised Simpsons-Style. Or actually anything in between. And that seems to describe Basus debut best in it's worst and most glorious moments: Something in between.

In the Beginning, there was...

The Simoqin Prophecies starts off very well: In an amusing prologue, a godlike figure is flabbergasted by its own creation:
What’s that? speak up, please. Did I create this world? I think so, yes. I’m not quite sure, though. I remember saying a word, though I’ve completely forgotten what the word was …
… lights
Thus, the tone is set for the rest of the novel, with the word "lights" actually already belonging to the next chapter. This chapter, a battle scene, is cringeworthyly cliché-ridden, but soon turns out to be only a stage-rehearsal for a drama. The Simoqin Prophecies is often a very funny novel, and the author has been compared to Pratchett several times because of it (more on that later). But The Simoqin Prophecies is also aiming at being taken rather seriously, as the following chapters show.

Soon the reader is exploring a very vivid bar in the gigantic city of Kol, populated by all sorts of magical beings, getting to know the main characters Kirin, a Ravian (a kind of elve), Spikes (a kind of Golem ) and the three-headed Oger Triog, who sometimes has difficulties with his heads arguing. Kol is a naturalistic setting (as far as that makes sense in fantasy): It is shown to have a differentiated social structure, with a believable mix of slums and markets, a traffic network for flying carpets, with schools, universities and so on. In Kol, Basu regularly delivers his best literary perfomances. The descriptions of the colorful cityscape here and there actually come quite close in style to Salman Rushdie, another author to whom Basu has been compared. But in the next moment, Basu features all-powerfull fighting rabbits and an ape kidnapping Kirin's comrade Maya in a homage to King Kong, and The Simoqin Prophecies feels like: Something in between.

Between literary ambitious modern fantasy and Pratchettesque satire, between Lord of the Rings and Discworld. And here and there, Basu gets completely of track...

Something in between ...

It should have become appearent by now: The Simoqin Prophecies is partly a work of pure genius. When, for example, Basu recounts the beginning of The Hobbit word by word, replacing hobbit with rabbit, thus rewriting the story Tolkien might originally have had in mind. Or when he talkes about rabbits, mixing biological facts and “ficticious facts” lifted from Lewis Carrol, in the same down-to-earth manner Borges' famous lists combined the uncombinable. In such occasions, The Simoqin Prophecies is really funny. Not necesserily laughing-out-loud-funny, but in a rather subtle way. One reads on and grins inwardly. King Kong and warrior-bunnys however, barfights that are evaluated according to levels of violence, and the by now all to familiar subversion of classical fantasy tropes, undermine the reading experience. Subtle humor and plump satire counteract, the result is an "in between", which doesn't satisfy in either register. The same goes for obvious jabs at the mechanics of the hero's journey or the accumulation of "experience" in the style of video games as satirized by Basu. Don't get me wrong: Generally the subject is fitting for the first novel in a trilogy called GameWorld. And in speed and rhythm The Simoqin Prophecies actually often feels like a computer game, and in a good way: It is colorful, accessible, it draws the reader into its world quickly, and there is surprisingly much to discover. But the more plump jokes, especially those concerned with game-mechanics, contradict this "design". They don't enhance the experience but devaluate it. Just as a crossover between the Elder Scrolls and Monkey Island Series probably wouldn't make as great a game as its parents let hope.

To the point please!

Since in the beginning other stuff seemed more important, let's finally have a look at what The Simoqin Prophecies actually is about:

In the world of GameWorld, pieced together from chunks of Indian, Chinese and European mythologies, the resurrection of the dark Lord Danh-Gem is predicted. But also the rise of a hero to fight the monster. And the yet unconscious heir of an ancient magical people is working towards this showdown, too.

So, The Simoqin Prophecies is a fairly typical quest-driven story -- A hero's journey, obviously. Basu is aware that his plot isn't all that original, and therefor regularly makes fun of the portrayal of hero's journeys in novels and computer games. Still: The more the novel moves away from the multiperspectivistic narrative of the first chapters to the hero plot it loses a lot of its appeal. And the frequently asked question, who or what that could be, a “hero” soon gets a little tiresome. In the end, however, the book once again takes on a vigorous drive and surprise with some really nice twists - including an amusing persiflage of Tom Riddle's diary from the second Harry Potter.

Comparisons with Pratchett

Now that would be all I have to say about The Simoqin Prophecies, if it weren't for the frequent comparisons with Pratchett, critics and fans have come up with. I don't think there is too much to that. Yes, both authors make fun off and have fun with classic fantasy clichés. But that's about it. With Pratchett, humor is at the center of his endeavour. His narrative style, apart from that, is very traditional, aiming at the broadest possible base of readers. Just compare the way Pratchett describes in a few words the little pub in which Rincewind gets introduced to Discworld to the way Basu gives life to his gloomy drinking hole. The GameWorld trilogy is always trying to be more to fantasy than just a funny satire. This, naturally, comes with the side effect that Basu can disappoint more easily than Pratchett, who mostly delivers exactly what his readers expect.

So, in conclusion: The Simoqin Prophecies (and the subsequent novels) are good. Read it! But maybe only put your trust in about half the praise on the bookjacket.

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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2018-01-01
You know, your description does make the book sound awfully appealing, even if it isn’t as good as it could’ve been. I probably will try to check it out someday, although it looks like it’s not available through my standard book-acquiring outlets, so I won’t be in a huge hurry to get my hands on it.
Sören Heim at 12:45 on 2018-01-02
This is really one of those books I loved at times and hated it at others. In its better moments it shows what Fantasy can be if an author really engages with modern literary techniques. And in its worst it is just another adventure plot wanting to have its glory and deconstruct it at the same time... Which can be really annoying. But I had fun reading it, so you might to, since I am very picky ;) And it's written in a way that you can really fly through it.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2018-01-08
in its worst it is just another adventure plot wanting to have its glory and deconstruct it at the same time

To me, personally, that doesn’t sound like an actively off-putting read; and not necessarily all that annoying. I’ve probably read through worse for a story I enjoy. So, yeah, if I ever get the chance and have some spare reading time, I’ll probably check it out, and enjoy it.
Sören Heim at 09:03 on 2018-01-09
No, not off-putting at all. As I said, party brilliant, partly not as brilliant, still within the top 20-25% of all Fantasy I read (this is a rough estimate of course, I don't actually keep lists and calculate percentiles... ;) ) Hope you'll enjoy.
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2018-01-09
Sounds like more than good enough for me. I'll be sure to make a report once I've read it, though but that'll probably take a while.
Cheriola at 02:25 on 2018-04-11
This does sound interesting.

One little question, though, just to make sure we have the same frame of reference: Have you actually read any relatively recent Pratchett novels?
I ask because your assessment of his style and narrative intentions sounds like you only know the first few books of the Discworld series, which were just basic fantasy genre parodies and therefore quite different from the main bulk of the series, which I consider to be far more typical of his style. What's appealing to me about Pratchett is not primarily the jokes or the mockery of traditional genre tropes, but the gentle satire of real world cultural / social institutions not relating to fantasy (Academia, banks, Hollywood, the British Army, football clubs, politics, etc.), as well as the humanist ethics and his general assumption that his readers are pretty broadly educated and will catch allusions to e.g. modern astrophysics or ancient Greek history or various Shakespeare plays.

Is this book comparable to Pratchett in this regard as well, or is it just a funny fantasy parody?
Cheriola at 03:08 on 2018-04-11
Case in point about different frames of reference regarding Pratchett: I had to look it up to believe that by "the little pub" you really were refering to The (not yet) Mended Drum, of all places. But when you say "gloomy drinking hole" and "barfights that are evaluated according to levels of violence", I think: Shamelessly cribbed from Pratchett's Mended Drum (or Biers, if we're talking really gloomy.)
Sören Heim at 11:39 on 2018-04-16
There are surely better Pratchett novels, I chose the first because you could nicely compare the way a new world is presented. Basu too makes fun of much more than classic fantasy, he comments on the groth of cities, gamification, filmindustry, draws from indian, european & other mythologies & much more. In writing style he is much more modern and show-don't telly than every pratchett I know, which is still only a small part of his - what is it, 100? - novels (counting not only discworld). As I said: therein lies Basus stregth - and weakness. His aim at presenting a living, breathing society while also delivering jokes and social satire undercut each other sometimes...
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