Book Review: Magical Women, Sukanya Venkatraghavan

Parvathi Ramkumar reviews Magical Women by Sukanya Venkatraghavan

Magical Women, Sukanya Venkatraghavan

An anthology of short stories, Magical Women is a collection of varied and diverse tales by 14 authors. All of them have a thread of the unusual running through them – and themes move from mythology to dystopia to history, with talking puppets and bickering goddesses and weavers of universes and dark secrets.

The book opens with “Gul” by Shreya Ila Anasuya, the story of a mysterious courtesan set in 19th-century Lucknow. “Gandaberunda” by S V Sujatha features twin sisters and a strange tattoo. “Rulebook for Creating a Universe” by Tashan Mehta is about a group of weavers creating, quite literally, the universe. “The Demon Hunter’s Dilemma” by Samhita Arni has a girl-turned-hunter of evil (or misunderstood) creatures at its helm. “Earth and Evolution Walk into a Bar” by Sejal Mehta has, quite predictably, earth and evolution in a crazy world. “Tridevi Turbulence” by Trisha Das has world-weary goddesses as protagonists.

“Stone Cold” by Kiran Manral attempts dystopia with some fantasy blended in. “The Gatekeeper’s Intern” by Ruchika Roy has its protagonist brought back from the dead. “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party” by Shweta Taneja attempts humour with its chudail protagonist. A puppet looks for meaning in “The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds” by Shveta Thakrar. “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” by Sukanya Venkatraghavan depicts unusual flowers and an enigmatic tenant. Time is a puzzling element in “Bahameen” by Asma Kazi, where time travellers hop from timeline to timeline. The teenaged wife of a dead man tries to stalk death in “The Girl Who Haunted Death” by Nikita Deshpande. “Apocalyptica” by Krishna Udayasankar again features goddesses.

Magical Women is built around an interesting premise of fantasy written by women, and some of the stories do have very intriguing concepts. However, sometimes, these stories feature illogical and oftentimes implausible plotlines that are either clichéd or too ambitious for a short story.

“Gul,” the opening story, has a rather mysterious courtesan at its core and the tale flows more smoothly than some of the others, especially with its unique setting.

“The Demon Hunter’s Dilemma” focuses on the concept of ‘true love’ that turns out unconvincing – it also has a horseless chariot that suddenly has a horse.

“The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds” has too many fantasy or mythical creatures from various cultures in its narrative and not all of them are consistent with the tone and tenor of the story.

“Apocalyptica” somehow manages to make God Vishnu egotistical and Goddess Lakshmi foul-mouthed and temperamental.

“Rulebook for Creating a Universe” has something of an original idea that is marred by uneven prose and an inconsistent world where girls are not allowed to do some things…just because?

“Gandaberunda” takes itself a little too seriously and features graphic descriptions and more than a little violence. It is a story where all of the characters appear viciously psychotic.

“Bahameen,” with its time-jumps and alternate realities, recipes and jibes at vegetarianism, could have been better presented, and its events chronicled more effectively.

“Stone Cold” is dystopia that picks up too many clichéd tropes from the genre, including all-controlling brotherhoods and secret societies, engineered humans, and peculiar prose that tries to streamline those clichés in something like an essay. It is a problem in “The Gatekeeper’s Intern” as well, with its tropes of the afterlife and planes of existence. There are references to energy and ghosts and strange titles that begin with capital letters. Not all of these coalesce as well as they should, or could have.

“Earth and Evolution Walk into a Bar” and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” have unusual concepts and a good sense of characterisation. Both of these make interesting observations on human vices from the points of view of immortal beings.

“Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party” tries to be humorous but turns out to be rather bizarre. A ‘shocking’ revelation by the protagonist in this one is not as surprising as it should have been…except for the protagonist’s family who seem to be woefully…crazy.

The goddesses Lakshmi, Parvati and Saraswati in “Tridevi Turbulence” are all portrayed as capricious and malicious, and the story’s environmental message is a bit unsubtle.

Magical Women could have been so much better. There is a wide cast of characters here, from gods to rakshasas and sirens to courtesans and they could be called diverse. They do have individual voices, for the most part. Social commentary and feminist ideals could have been better-woven into the tales. As it is, these are presented in an obvious manner that detracts from the flow of the story – and it does seem that some of these tales revolve around an issue, focussing more on that than the story itself.

Defined as fantasy, these stories do at times turn illogical or inconsistent, which they should not. More awareness of the genre might have helped avoid clichés and improve consistency.

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