‘All of the reasoned editorials sounded hollow in light of the perverse randomness of the event. It was as if only a thin wall of electric lighting protected the great cities of the world from total barbarism.’-Dan Simmons, Song of Kali
A random recommendation on Robert Mayer Burnett’s YouTube channel brought me to this book. I read Simmons’s Hyperion a while back and enjoyed it, but never tried anything else by him. The synopsis sounded intriguing, as did the setting of “Calcutta,” (now Kolkata). Song of Kali won the World Fantasy Award in 1986.
‘Song of Kali follows an American magazine editor who journeys to the brutally bleak, poverty-stricken Indian city in search of a manuscript by a mysterious poet—but instead is drawn into an encounter with the cult of Kali, goddess of death.’
Literary magazine editor Robert Luczak (Loo-zack) is sent to “Calcutta” to verify the rumours of new work by the legendary Indian poet M. Das. The poet “disappeared” eight years previously, and nothing has been heard from him since. It is presumed that he is dead. Luczak sets off on this journey with his Indian wife, Amrita, and their baby girl, Victoria.
“Calcutta was stretched out below, over 250 square miles of city, a galaxy of lights after the absolute blackness of cloud tops and the Bay of Bengal. I had flown into many cities at night, but none like this. Instead of the usual geometries of electric lights, Calcutta at midnight was ablaze with countless lanterns, open fires, and a strange, soft glow.”-Dan Simmons, Song of Kali, p.17
Song of Kali starts off slowly setting the scene and introducing us to main character Robert Luczak. The first thing I noticed was how well written it is. Simmons writes quality prose and carefully builds the intrigue and tension of the story. His descriptions of Luczak’s impressions of the chaotic city of Calcutta are fascinating, sometimes frightening and depressing. There is no doubt that the author is using poetic license to help build an atmosphere of unease and increasing dread. He is also writing the story from Luczak’s viewpoint. Nevertheless, some reviewers have complained about Simmons’s fictional version of “Calcutta” and called it “discriminatory.” This is a whole other debate, but I wonder why there seems to be a propensity for equating an author’s views to their main character(s). If the main character thinks like this, then that must mean the author does. In a work of imagination. Really? I’ll stop there before I go off on a rant.
The characters are rounded and memorable. Robert Luczak is a flawed man. He makes mistakes, and this helps make him feel believable. The harrowing experiences he undergoes during his time in Calcutta clearly shape his views on the city.
“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place.”
This is how the book begins. Why would he make such a damning statement? What could have happened to him there? I wanted to know more, and Simmons’s narrative pulled me in.
As I already mentioned, the book begins slowly and takes its time introducing the various characters. When the Luczaks arrive at the airport, they are met by M.T. Krishna who guides them to their hotel. Krishna, a local teacher, is a fascinating character and quickly became my favourite.
“His face was relatively young–late twenties, perhaps–and clean-shaven, but his black hair stood out in great electric tufts and his dark, piercing eyes gave an impression of such intensity that it bordered on a sense of restrained violence.”-Dan Simmons
Like most of the secondary characters, you are never quite sure what Krishna’s intentions are. He has information regarding the missing Indian poet M. Das and introduces Luczak to a university student who has an incredible story to tell; a story that sparked memories of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It is in this part of the story where the horror creeps in. I wouldn’t label it outright “horror,” more like fantasy horror, but there are some creepy and disturbing scenes in here. Again, it’s written so well by Simmons.
From here on in, things get stranger and more fantastic. Luczak gets tangled up in a fever-dream-like nightmare which had me hooked. I have to stress that the final third of the book is page-turningly addictive. I was almost racing to the end to find out what happened next. In fact, Song of Kali has reminded me to read more by Simmons. Do you have any recommendations?
Recommended for fans of well-written adventure stories which contain elements of fantasy-horror, as well as believable characters. Be wary of some depictions of body horror.
Thanks for reading! I need to brew up a nice and calming cup of Sencha to relax now.