Samit Basu’s Gameworld trilogy is marketed as India’s first SFF work, which is Sci-Fi/Fantasy for the uninitiated. The three books in the trilogy are The Simoqin Prophecies, The Manticore’s Secret and the Unwaba Revelations. The books read as if every fantasy, sci-fi and mythological work in history has been pounded together between the pages of three volumes. The allusions to other stories are many and varied, the opening line itself fits Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit into the sentence “In a hole in the ground, there lived a rabbit”. The story follows with a disparate ensemble of characters, where manticores and centaurs are spoken of in the same breath as rakshasas and dhabas.
The Simoqin Prophecies introduces the political and geographic landscape of the gameworld, which has one large vertical sea around it, and a bunch of states. The political centre of the world is a city called Kol (referred to as the “Big Mango”), where the main characters Kirin, Maya and Asvin live. The first few chapters of the book just mix and match too many themes from too many places, which starts getting frustrating as if the author is trying to do too many things at once. There is also a piece of really horrible poetry, which just adds to the stereotype that all Indian authors simply have to write poetry, and end up doing it wrong. The story builds up carefully on every fantasy stereotype in the book, and seems to go a little too far in many places. This includes a dramatic King Kong like sequence where a giant gorilla kidnaps a girl and goes to the top of a tower, the girl escapes on her own, and the monkey sets the city on fire. This strange bridge between a monster movie and Ramayan seems a bit misplaced. However, as the story progresses, you can’t deny Basu’s wordplay and sense of humor. Most of this is centered around a bar called Frags. There are also a whole range of interesting and complicated biological alternatives for modern technology. This includes giant tubeworms used as trains, and an elaborate system of imps and “muwi leaves” that have to be smoked, for making movies. Just when it seems that the author had too much muwi, things suddenly get better. Every fantasy stereotype in the book is methodically demolished, the heroes, for a change, ends up taking the easy way out… and the Gameworld turns out to be a place where Luke Skywalker actually ascends to the dark lord’s throne when Vader throws him the offer. Somewhere between the pages, there is a fleeting hint of a much larger picture, of a goddess throwing a pair of dice, true to Einstein’s dictum that a God does not play with dice.
The second book is where the author really shines through. The story follows a great political game, with wit and satire. Some new characters are introduced, and old ones that seemed secondary are explored further. Prying beneath the layers of allusions, there is a very strong influence of Moorcock, another fantasy renegade author who defied all the established rules. This is most apparent in a scene where Kirin sees through the eyes of a dragon as it flies. The development of each of the civilizations on the gameworld, and of the many and varied characters themselves are a pleasure to read. There are shape shifters with multiple personality disorders, underground civilizations that are paranoid of external influence and trades in information and knowledge, and the Ravians – a race of super intelligent star travelers. As the world prepares for a war that will eventually end the world, a totally different series of things is happening in the heavens. Enter the gods. As things turn out, the history of the planet is a bunch of gods playing a God game. In a world of intense politics, spying and mind-control, Basu draws a very strong worldview, a world made of grey hues where not everything is what it seems to be. At the end of the second book, the world is on the threshold of a war.
The Unbawa revelations has one of the most imaginative descriptions of large scale war in fantasy. There are two great battles written in detail, and one of them uses an interesting device for introducing humor. The story follows two scribes, in the heat of the battle, describing the goings on in the war in a legendary manner, while Basu outlines the “reality” of the flesh and bones flying about. The fight is won by a bunch of oddly shaped air-ships, that fry entire armies. As the Ravians fight the humans and Rakshasas, Kirin and Maya are engaged in an endeavor of their own – to defeat the gods in their own game, and establish a world where mortals can live without the influence of the gods. They are helped in this effort by an unreliable little creature called the Unbawa, which calls itself “the oldest of the chameleons” and is in fact, one of the gods imprisoned in the Gameworld. Poetry makes a come back in the third book, and this time around, it is actually well crafted. There are “journals” written by the secondary characters, something that only Maya had in the first two books. The story is told from the point of view of all the races, above the ground, below the ground, in the heavens, and the unfortunate few in between these realms.
The climax of the third book, and the conclusion of the series seems a little contrived. This is because the solution seems to be too easy, and something that does not make sense. However, the series is worth a read for its sensibilities – and the sheer delight of following a bunch of feminist pirates in a slave auction rescuing a yeti from a life of servitude.