You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Song of Kali

I'm not a huge fan of horror, but I am a big fan of Dan Simmons, so I knew I had to read Song of Kali, the book that started his career. I enjoyed his novel Carrion Comfort a lot, and his Hyperion novels are some of my favorite science fiction.

Simmons conjures a visceral sense of place, a setting that exudes fear, dread, and despair. The city is Calcutta, India, and Bobby Luczak travels there to bring back a manuscript from a poet who was believed to have died eight years earlier. He decided to take his Indian wife with him in case he needs her help translating, and they bring their infant daughter. He goes through some cloak and dagger stuff to get the manuscript delivered to him.

Every chapter begins with a quote from an Indian writer about Calcutta, describing the city as a bitch, a whore, a murderous beast. The description of the city is the most vivid I've ever read. The tone of the story is set by the filth in the streets, the naked children running around, the men defacating in alleys, the raw sewage in the waterways. The worst part of the city is the Kapalikas, a death-cult that worships Kali, the darkest avatar of the Indian gods.

The tone is set by several things. One of Luczak's editors telling him about his trip to India where he found a boy who had been sacrificed at a new bridge. Confusion and crowds at the airport. A strange man named Krishna who meets them at the airport. A woman who claims to be the missing poet's daughter.

Things get more mysterious when Krishna takes Luczak to a coffee house late one night to hear a student's story about the Kapalikas, his initiation into the cult, having to procure a body for Kali, and the rite that follows. One of the initiates doesn't survive the ritual. The story culimates as Luczak, already with the manuscript, convinces someone to allow him to visit the poet in person.

I don't think I've ever read such a captivating account. The city seems alive, or almost undead at times. The theme of death and decay is all around, including visits to a morgue and a crematorium. More happens after the visit with the poet, but I wouldn't want to give away the best parts. The novel does finally find a hopeful note at the end, and Luczak resists the pull of Calcutta. This book gets a solid A.


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