Tanaz Bhathena on Hunted by the Sky, a young adult fantasy fiction title with a gutsy heroine leading a revolution
In a kingdom of citizens who can wield the powers of magic and sorcery, Tanaz Bhathena’s protagonist is born without any discernible magical talent. What she instead has is a star-shaped birthmark.
In writing fantasy fiction, the devil is in the detail. An imaginary world complete with its culture, language, food and beliefs springs to life only when the tapestry is so intricately woven that the world born out of the author’s imagination transports the reader into a realm which exists but in the mind and yet is so tangible that it almost feels real. Such delicate writing is what makes the first part of Tanaz Bhathena’s fantasy duo-logy, Hunted by the Sky an engrossing story, placing the reader dead centre in the fictional land of Ambar and the life of its heroine, Gul.
As is the case with young adult fantasy fiction, the made-up universe is a backdrop against which the protagonist of the story sets out to battle the forces of evil: in this book, King Lohar of Ambar and his ruthless soldiers.
In a kingdom of citizens who can wield the powers of magic and sorcery, Bhathena’s protagonist is born without any discernible magical talent. What she is instead born with, in a rather Harry Potter-esque fashion, is a star-shaped birthmark. This puts her life in incredible danger, for girls bearing similar scars have begun disappearing not only from Ambar but from the whole of Svapnalok at the command of the oppressive king whose astrologer has prophesied his doom at the hands of a girl born with such a mark.
The sky will fall, a star will rise
Ambar changed by the king’s demise
Her magic untouched and unknown by all
Marked with a star, she’ll bring his downfall.
Explaining the popularity of the Chosen One trope, the author says that “even though the protagonist has powers, they are reluctant to use them or unable to use them for some reason. So, in some ways, the protagonist is also an underdog.”
Also, power doesn’t come to such characters without sacrifice which is what makes them interesting and relatable. In Bhathena’s novel, this is reflected in her heroine, Gul, who is born in a magus family, one of the privileged classes in her world, and even though she appears to be non-magi, can feel magical powers rising within her when she grows angry.
Gul is forced to go through a traumatic situation at a young age – her parents are murdered by the king's soldiers. But she keeps going and according to Bhathena channellises her grief into something stronger; rather than falling apart, she seeks vengeance.
Moreover, notes the author, “Her lack of magical abilities places her in this unique position where she’s able to empathize with non-magi like Cavas, even though her own privilege isn’t entirely erased.” For Cavas hails from the tenements and after a rather crackling first meeting, Gul and Cavas are bound in friendship and romance, without realising how sorely those ties will be tested.
What is most fascinating about the novel is the magical kingdom designed by the author. In a setting inspired by medieval India — “a historical period I was obsessed with as a teenager” — she fills it up with labyrinthine palace grounds shrouded in secrets, men and women lathered in shimmering powders, king’s soldiers patrolling the streets and the tenements on the outskirts where all non-magical folk are sent to live out their lives.
But how far are Ambar and its social structure removed from our own? For power and its palpable hold over Ambar’s rulers have subjugated an entire class of non-magi people and wreaked havoc in the kingdom.
The author notes, “I wanted to examine how power divides people and how often those in power can take on the role of oppressors.”
While writing the story, she also posed similar questions about the influence of religion, the kinds of love and relationships, patriarchy and how it plays out and the impact of magic on the powers prevailing in her fictional world.
Underscoring the chink in the armour of magical prowess, Bhathena notes, “There is this fallacy that magic is a quick fix to all our problems. But power always exacts a price — and I wanted to depict the same thing with Gul and her journey with magic in Hunted by the Sky.” Because for all her courage, Gul’s magical powers elude her.
Bhathena has previously authored books such as The Beauty of the Moment which won her the Nautilus Gold Award for Young Adult Fiction and her debut work, the bestseller A Girl Like That, both of which were actively interspersed with autobiographical elements. They also featured as their principle characters, girls on the cusp of adulthood, but it is Gul’s story which marks the writer’s foray into the world of young adult fantasy fiction.
Of this swerve into the genre, she says, “In 2016, after I finished writing my contemporary novel A Girl Like That, I wanted to try something different. Still too intimidated by fantasy, I decided to write something a little more “realistic” — a science fiction dystopian novel, which didn’t turn out well. I loved the characters in that book but the plot and setting were both skeletal.”
“Then,” she continues, “a friend of mine suggested using magic instead of new technology. I thought to myself: Why not? What do I have to lose?”
However, as is the case with contemporary fiction, there were certain aspects to be mindful of in creating a new world and its rules. One of them was ensuring that whichever way the story goes, it functions logically within this framework. “If there was an anomaly or exception — such as a character being gifted with an unusual magical power — I had to clearly explain why this was the case.”
Designing Ambar was a lot of fun, adds the author, describing how she looked up museum archives and historical sources for weapons, clothing and jewellery of 15th and 16th century India. “In terms of the setting and landscape, I was inspired by Rajasthan, especially the palaces and fortresses.”
“I also delved into mythology that I grew up listening to — stories from the Shahnameh, the Ramayan and the Mahabharat. As I began rewriting, everything began falling into place. It was as if I’d unlocked a door and a whole world was waiting for me behind it. All I needed to do was embrace my culture.”
The first part of the duo-logy focuses on Gul’s early years spent in hiding, and her training under the group of rebels, Sisters of the Golden Lotus, as well as her thirst to avenge her parents’ killers, and her nail-biting, fear inducing escapades. Bhathena says, “I always knew that Hunted by the Sky would not be a stand-alone novel. In fact, I might have made it into a trilogy. But the series sold as a duo-logy and so I had to revise the plot accordingly to make the story shorter.”
In the second book, readers can expect more of the Sisterhood and the final showdown between King Lohar’s forces and the rebels: a war.
What Suzanne Collins did with The Hunger Games series in sketching a brave and fearsome young girl with plenty of will to fight for survival, was bring to the mainstream a portrait of a she-ro, a metaphor for freedom against an oppressive rule. While drawing parallels between Katniss Everdeen and Gul might be reductionist, Bhathena has still in a similar vein managed to fashion out of her protagonist, a ferocious heroine who takes on deadly challenges and daringly walks into the mouth of the lion, such as when she strolls right into the palace of Queen Amba in the guise of a maid.
For her part, the author concedes, “I knew without a doubt that I wanted a girl to be the protagonist of the story.”
Contradicting popular notions which so often place men as the victors of heroic historical battles she opines, “While writing the book, I took inspiration from warriors like the Attingal Ranis of Kerala, Razia Sultana, and Chand Bibi, from political masterminds like Nur Jehan, and from modern day women like the Gulabi Gang to remind readers that women are complex and strong and not to be underestimated.”
In keeping with this idea, Bhathena’s narrative is filled with strong, courageous women right from Gul, to the rebels fighting in the Sisterhood, to the queen herself, who is a stern albeit very intriguing character.
For young adults, fantasy fiction opens doors to worlds that stretch beyond their limited spheres of reality. And as the author suggests, we are living in a dystopia right now and fantasy fiction can become that space which allows people to detach from the real world and collect themselves mentally.
“At the same time,” she adds, “I hope my book allows people to examine their own privilege and ideologies. All of us — myself included — are uncomfortable acknowledging our own prejudices, but this is very important if we expect to solve any of the problems currently taking place in the world.”
Tanaz Bhathena's Hunted by the Sky has been published by Penguin India
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