Genre: Fantasy / Cultural
Released: April 2018
Reviewed by: Jane Stockwell
When I first started to read “Madilla: the Spirit of U’Katang”, I wasn’t really sure if I was reading a historical novel, a cultural commentary or a fantasy story. In the end, it turned out to be the latter with elements of cultural commentary on gender roles and religious repression.
Benedict and I argued for a while about what part of the world the story was set; based on some of the names I thought it was somewhere in India or Sri Lanka, while he felt it was New Zealand or Islander. We were both wrong. Ian B. Boyd has created the fictitious land of Almaq, which seems to be somewhere around India or Pakistan, or even Afganistan. The story centers around a tiny, backwater village in Almaq known as Kirra, which is under martial law.
As an aside, one criticism I have is while the country of Almaq is fictional, the names of the characters seem very mixed in heritage. I found this somewhat distracting when a name just didn’t feel a comfortable fit into the rest of the culture, which seems to be based on India. The men’s names appear to be an assortment of some Middle Eastern and some Maori. Of course, the rules about names can be however the author chooses, but it rang to me as a little inconsistent.
The story is presented in the first person from the perspective of Madilla, a girl who lives in Kirra. We pick up from when she is six years old, where we start to learn some of the cultural myths and taboos of her village as told by one of the village elders . We follow Madilla’s experiences through to the age of around twelve.
One of the customs in Madilla’s world is that women are not allowed to play music, a restriction that she quails against shortly after her father comes across a piano which he gives to her older brother, Taormo. In their isolated village, they have no idea what a piano is or how it makes music, and her brother soon gets frustrated with it. Madilla, however, finds that she has a natural affinity for creating music, guided by her connection to her religion.
Religion strongly underpins the story; the journey of Madilla is a journey of her understanding herself and her religion. Her desire for the spiritual release she discovers with the piano puts her conflict with her village’s cultural norms. She falls foul of her uncle Marlong and the occupying soldiers and is taken away from her tiny village to the nation’s capital. There she learns more of both her own religion and her country’s heritage and history as she tries to get back to Kirra and her beloved Mama.
While Madilla’s gender is culturally important for the story, Boyd hasn’t imposed gender stereotypes on her behavior. He handles the young woman’s viewpoint and experiences sensitively as she matures, and it never feels awkward or contrived.
The story, however, moves very slowly and somewhat ponderously. Boyd has created a very rich backstory and history, but you become lost in it, even with the substantial glossary of invented terms at the beginning of the book. I looked at the glossary briefly as I started to read, but I didn’t refer back to it again. I find that glossaries are often a distraction and should best be avoided. A story needs to stand on its own without a glossary to explain what is going on.
There are situations towards the end of the story when Madilla is exposed to living outside her isolated village where she encounters modern technology for the first time. She rapidly becomes at ease with these new wonders, and they become mundane too quickly. She had never encountered electricity before yet seems quite comfortable with traffic lights and other technology within (seemingly) a few days.
“Madilla” never really decides what genre it fits into. There are elements of fantasy and elements of social commentary on the repression of women. While fantasy and sci-fi are often also a social commentary, here it came across a bit preachy and didn’t really provide any further insight into the spiritual journey that Madilla follows.
It was noticeable enough that I looked at Ian B. Boyd’s home page after having read the book where I discovered that he had recently visited India. It feels that some of the cultural revelations the author observed there were squeezed into the narrative.
Despite the criticisms, I certainly have a strong feeling of immersion in the world and its customs and dangers. The author shapes the world of “Madilla” very vividly in the mind’s eye of the reader. The book is not without its flaws, but I would certainly encourage the author to continue to write and try to refine his craft