My first novel by Dan Simmons. I bought this because of the title, read reviews about it and was intrigued, and chose to read it a few weeks ago after doing the Try a Chapter tag. It was captivating and unsettling and well worth the read.
“A strange sense of…violence, I guess. A sense of violence seething just under the surface.”
Calcutta: a monstrous city of immense slums, disease and misery, is clasped in the foetid embrace of an ancient cult. At its decaying core is the Goddess Kali: the dark mother of pain, four-armed and eternal, her song the sound of death and destruction. Robert Luczak has been hired by Harper’s to find a noted Indian poet who has reappeared, under strange circumstances, years after he was thought dead. But nothing is simple in Calcutta and Lucsak’s routine assignment turns into a nightmare when he learns that the poet is rumoured to have been brought back to life in a bloody and grisly ceremony of human sacrifice.
This was quite a read. I read it quickly, in 4 days actually, because the story immediately pulled me in from the first sentence. It hypnotizes you, hooking you to every word and building anticipation within you to a crescendo that leaves you stupefied at its shocking release close to the end.
Throughout, there’s a pervading tension that increases as the story progresses. It builds and builds, stretched taunt as if barely holding back what it prevents from running loose. That tension the reader feels is a spillover from the atmosphere of the setting. Dan Simmons’s Calcutta is hell. It’s overwhelmingly hot and the dregs of life is seen everywhere one lays an eye. Streets are littered, the place stinks, and the threat of violence is so palpable that you feel the frenzied pulse of it running through the city. Simmons does such a great job describing this setting that I could almost feel the heat and the stench closing in on me. It’s as if I was transported to Calcutta.
I have no idea how Calcutta really is but Simmons does not describe a pretty picture of it. Instead we’re shown its underbelly and find it rotting. The place is seedy and dangerous and though Robert “Bobby” Lucsak, our protagonist, tries to protect his family from it, he doesn’t succeed in doing so unscathed. His family is almost ripped apart, and the dedication and love he and his wife feel for each other barely saves their relationship. That was such a sad moment, close to the end, and I had to take a break from reading to settle my emotions, which raged from shock to anger to sadness and back again as I replayed scenes in my head.
The build up to that big reveal was paced well. The characters’ actions helps to increase our anxiety as our curiousity about what must have happened grows and when the moment is just right, we are given the answer without much fanfare which makes the reveal even more emotionally impactful, hence my shocked reaction. The senselessness of what led to the outcome made me angry, though it brought to mind the many acts of senseless violence in the world, and the hurt done to Bobby and his family made me sad for them.
It made me wonder if the cult made an elaborate plan specifically to target Bobby or if he was hurt because of his keen interest in learning more about M. Das and trying to meet him. I couldn’t figure out the motive there, which was frustrating.
Though I enjoyed reading the story, it’s not without faults. I particularly had issue with the characters and the plot itself. I am not a fan of Bobby, who is an ass and a bit xenophobic. Sure, he’s kind and would give away all he has to help others, but he’s condescending. His wife, who is from India, is underdeveloped and seems to be included in the story only to serve as a progressive voice in comparison to the Calcutta natives and a foil to her husband as well as his “buffer” between him and “these intense strangers.”
She’s not given much of a voice. Sure she says a lot, but even so she’s silent because she doesn’t speak to identify who or how she is. Her comments are mostly to help her husband prove a point or to clarify something for him. Only a few times, such as when she talks about seeing ghosts, does she say something for herself. I also had issue with the plot because sometimes I got confused (minor spoiler: why/how did Robert figure that Krishna is Sanjay?), but they aren’t major.
Song of Kali is classified as horror and I grudgingly agree. It’s not particularly scary, but at night I sometimes feared that I’d see Kali crouching by my bed waiting to pounce. It’s hard to say whether or not the supernatural elements in the story are real since during those times, like when Bobby saw Kali, he was either drugged or asleep. And as for the poet dude’s fucked up face, who the hell knows what happened there!
That’s right! I gave it 5 stars though it had issues because I read this to be entertained and I was. Do I recommend it? Of course I do. If you don’t mind reading a story that’s potentially unsettling and a touch terrifying, then I suggest you give this one a try because Simmons is a good storyteller and the story will suck you in.
My review is pretty vague because if one is spoiled for the big reveal then the story will lose its effect. It’s the tension and release that makes this such a good read.
Quote from the book:
“I think there are black holes in reality. Black holes in the human spirit. And actual places where, because of density or misery or sheer human perversity, the fabric of things just comes apart and that black core in us swallows all the rest.”