The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first became acquainted with Sarwat Chadda when I read Devil's Kiss, and I knew he was an author I wanted to follow. Chadda has switched gears slightly, writing for the MG/Juvenile group with this series, and with a male lead. He has also set his book in India, I believe that he was drawing in some degree from his own heritage. With The Savage Fortress, Mr. Chadda has written an involving read quite full of darkness and danger, and incredible heroism at its center.
Ash Mistry is an English boy of Indian descent. He gains the opportunity to explore the land of his parents' birth when he goes to stay with his aunt and uncle in India. Ash doesn't care much for India, despite his romantic hopes. It's hot, dirty, and basic in amenities. He'd rather be at home in England, with his videogames and his friends. I could identify with Ash in that I hate being hot and dirty, and the descriptions of India in that sense make me question whether I would enjoy my first experience with it any better than Ash does. However, Ash finds his destiny and comes to life in a way that staying in England never would have provided.
When his uncle gets the opportunity to translate a scroll for the very rich Englishman, Lord Alexander Savage, Ash encounters evils right out of Indian legend and folklore. For Lord Savage is a wicked magician cursed with immortality in a decaying body, and surrounded by blood-thirsty rakshasa creatures (rakshasa is a general term for demons who can have a variety of animal/human forms). Ash begs his uncle to have nothing to do with the man and his dark enterprises, but his uncle doesn't believe him. Ash falls in a deep hole at an archeology site funded by Lord Savage, and pricks his finger on an ancient arrow that connects him to the power of an ancient god, whose power belongs to the wielder of the arrow, which is called an astra.
Things go downhill from here and tragedy results in Ash and his young sister Lucky being on the run for their lives. An ancient holy man and his strange companion intervene, and guide Ash closer to his destiny as the wielder of the astra, and the only person who can stand in the way of Lord Savage's wicked intentions.
Mr. Chadda is definitely in touch with the child part of himself. He understands that kids want adventure and wonder, but don't always have awareness of what comes along with the fun parts. Ash is like a stand-in for the thirteen-year-old self of older readers, or the young readers who read this book. It's a case of "Be careful what you wish for." We can't even know how dark our world is until we face it head on. Ash encounters things that made my hair stand on end. And the author is almost gleeful in describing the gore and violence. Not too much for a MG book, although I think the age restriction should be 13 or older, honestly. I could see this book causing nightmares to a younger reader. I was hesitant to read it late at night, just in case.
There is no lack of adventure and danger, and Ash's character undergoes desired and necessary growth in character. At the end of his harrowing experience, he is not unchanged. He realizes that we are accountable for our actions and we do have responsibilities in our lives to do what's right even if it's hard. While some readers might not be as accepting of the polytheistic elements of this story, I think this content can still be enjoyed as a fiction work, and I would recommend that parents investigate this book before letting their younger children read it. Even though I don't subscribe to the Hindu beliefs, I do think there are some good lessons to be learned about accountability and personal ethics. As a lover of folklore and mythology, I thought the world-building was fascinating, and Chadda describes India vividly. I felt as though I was there. He shows a lot of textures in the different peoples in this book, and I think it's good for readers to be exposed to multicultural characters and the diversity of our big, wide world.
Bruce Mann is an excellent narrator. He utilizes a variety of tones and accents that fit this book very well. I especially liked how he speaks Ash's part. Ash has a very distinctive way of speaking and he comes to life for me. I liked the kid a lot. I'm glad my library had this in audio, even if took me ages to finish listening to it (not out of boredom, just time issues).
I'd recommend The Savage Fortress to 13 or older children (with parental approval) and older readers who enjoy MG/Juvenile fiction with folklore. I'm looking forward to more of Ash's adventures.
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