Emotion, drama, suspense, high-octane action, intrigue, mystery, and subtle commentary on social issues. While all these may sound like the boxes that every big-budget Bollywood film that wants to be a blockbuster wishes to tick, they aren’t – because we all know they’d rather replace the last one with an item number while making a hash of the others. No, these instead describe the new fantasy thriller, Beast – from the author of Immortal and the Aryavarta Chronicles, Krishna Udayasankar.
Beast hits the ground running, with a savage triple homicide of wanted gangsters in Mumbai. Enter ACP Aditi Kashyap of the Mumbai Police and Prithvi Narasimha, an Enforcer, who both find themselves on the trail of the killer, and each for their own reasons. Needless to say, their paths soon cross and inevitably end up joining forces in their quest to solve the murders. But, unlike the reader, it isn’t till later that Aditi learns that there’s more to Prithvi than meets the eye. Because as it turns out, Prithvi isn’t human belonging as he does to a different species: Homo Pantheris Leo. In other words, he’s a therianthrope, a werelion to be specific or simply, a Saimha.
As the murder investigation proceeds, and the policewoman gets dragged deeper into the world of this ‘distant cousin of the human race’ and its politics, Prithvi – a person grappling with his own past – becomes the lens through which we learn about the Saimhas. Udayasankar uses to good effect the tried and tested method of flashbacks from the protagonist’s life to reveal how things came to be.
With origins in the dim mythological past and explained by way of genetics, the Saimhas have co-existed with Homo Sapiens (primarily by pretending to be human and thus, avoiding the fate of other Hominid species like the Neaderthals), and Prithvi, we learn, is an Orphan who had been taken into the Saimha fold and educated in its ways until he is now an Enforcer, whose job is to kill deviant werelions – not least their culture doesn’t condone the use of weapons, when it is a Saimha. With their own rules and codes of conduct, Saimhas are revealed to have their own Council, and a mysterious Prophecy that lies at the heart of the murders.
With each succeeding fast-paced chapter, Udayasankar takes the present story forward, while going back to revisit Prithvi’s past as he grapples to come to terms with the beast within in. Prithvi isn’t just torn between the choices that come with being a Saimha, he has also had to grapple simultaneously with his love for a fellow male saimha, and a human woman. In other words, all the makings of an interesting lead protagonist. Other ingredients in the novel include a benign father-figure who runs a school for Saimhas and may not be what claims to be, an antagonist who would wield genomics to the detriment of humankind, a Saimha Enforcer (aka Hitman) who is after Prithvi just as much as Prithvi is after the murderer and a whole cast of colourful characters, both human and werelion, including a therianthrope scholar who questions the established order of the Saimhas called Dr. Bhima Rao.
Beast ticks all the boxes that make for a fast-paced thriller, and in true thriller fashion, Udayasankar ties together all the various threads as Aditi and Prithvi race ‘against time’, and through Mumbai’s dark underbelly to avert a dark future that awaits humankind if the villain’s nefarious plan is not thwarted. Throw in chase sequences, miffed gangster minions, shoot-outs and a filmi, action-packed showdown, and Beast stands apart from its Indian fantasy thriller peers in being an intelligent, entertaining and engrossing read. As with Udayasankar’s previous books, I fully expect Beast to be optioned by Bollywood, and one can only hope that the final product stays true to the book and doesn’t include item numbers. On that note, I draw the curtains on this edition of New Worlds Weekly and hope to see you here again next weekend for yet foray into SF/F. Live long and prosper!
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