Jun 172024
Locus: To quote Tom Clancy (or was it Jeff Bezos?), it takes ten years to become an overnight success. I suspect Vajra Chandrasekera can relate. He spent a decade working on his craft, with short fiction published in various genre magazines and anthologies. Then, last year, Chandrasekera published his first novel, The Saint of Bright Doors, which immediately caught fire, drawing plaudits and praise from critics and fans. Fast-forward to the present day, and the novel has been nominated for multiple prizes (the Hugo, the Nebula, the Lammy) and recently took home the Crawford award. I featured The Saint of Bright Doors on my Locus ‘‘Year in Review’’ essay and spoke ecstatically about the novel on The Writer and the Critic podcast. What makes it such an astonishingly good debut is Chandraesekera’s boldness – the imaginative, radical manner in which he fuses science fiction and fantasy, social realism, and surrealism. But if The Saint of Bright Doors is an experimental novel in (mostly) conventional storytelling clothing, Rakesfall bares it all, a full-frontal deconstruction of narrative and genre.
The patchwork, ‘‘fix-up’’ quality of Rakesfall means it never settles into a narrative groove. The setting, the voice, and the structure regularly change, forcing the reader to pause, to re-evaluate what’s happening. But while I might have been bewildered, I never felt lost. If anything, my mind was all abuzz, striving to keep hold of the threads, the intricate web, that ties these lives, these realities together.
What propels the narrative isn’t so much the dramatic set pieces (though the novel isn’t short on those; several of the chapters set in the far future are genuinely jaw-dropping) but the constant flood of ideas and new ways of thinking and perceiving the world. Chandrasekera reconceptualises Hindu and Buddhist beliefs such as akasha or the Akashic Record. He reframes Sri Lanka’s history of European colonialism as a play with a distinctively postmodern vibe. He brilliantly breaks the narrative to tell us a fable about Heroes, Wasps, and Kings and deliberately leaves out the moral (because ‘‘this is history rather than a story’’). He depicts a far future where tech lords and multinationals have devastated the Earth and have now colonised digital space, including the singularity. And undergirding this flurry of invention is a voice that is sometimes plain, sometimes wry and knowing, but more often than not overwhelmed with grief and anger. And even here, when the story is at its most vibrant, there’s an awareness, a recognition that a novel this playful, erudite, and caustic has its limits when recalling the histories, the stories, and the beliefs of those who died for the sake of Empire, progress and profit. Rakesfall may not seem as polished as The Saint of Bright Doors, but in my mind, it cements Chandraesekera as one of the genre’s most important, most vital voices.