Initial reaction: What an enthralling action/adventure story with immersive cultural references and interesting take on grief and death. Not to mention that mind-trippy cliffhanger of an ending. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.
I think I have a new author to watch.
How far would you go to save someone you love from the hands of death, especially if there were something holding the promise of bringing them back within your reach?
It's definitely been a while since I've come across a single installment in a series that I really enjoyed, let alone a middle grade novel that takes place chiefly within India and does such a great job blending the lore with the setting and dynamic action/adventure/fantasy qualities. It's not only well structured, but well written and fluid with the prose. I pictured the details and encounters of the story with full clarity as I read this, and I know I'll be following this series in its future installments.
Sarwat Chadda's "The City of Death" is the second book in the Ash Mistry series, and my first experience with the author. I went into this blind, not really knowing what to expect. I'll wholeheartedly admit I fell in love with the cover (in both editions, but the one I have here is the Scholastic version). The colors really make it stand out, as well as the tension between the characters facing off.
The story may not seem like it takes an action/adventure trek from where it starts, because Ash is your typical boy trying to deal with being the odd one out, a nerd/geek outcast who crushes on the popular girl he's known since youth. He likes Gemma, tries to ask her out and despite all of the supernatural kick-awesome things he presumably did in the previous book, he gets weak in the knees.
But Ash has a dark streak living inside him - the power to kill with being able to see the sparkling death points on a target (which admittedly is super cool). After just returning from a trek in India, Ash's half-demon, half-human friend Parvati returns to London to ask him to help her again with another mission, which means it's bound to interfere with his attempts to live "normal" despite being an Eternal Warrior to the death goddess Kali. Ash is fully cognizant of his "with great power comes great responsibility" limitations, but he's a bit blinded by his own desperation to be a "hero" and that sets him up for trouble.
His normal world comes crashing down as conflicts from his supernatural save-the-world existence challenge his real relationships, resulting in a tragedy that has Ash spinning from the loss and desperate to remedy, not just with respect to the toll it takes in his relationships, but for the relationship he actually loses in the crossfire.
I'll admit the events didn't hit me as hard as it could've for a few reasons - the first being that I didn't read the first book in this series (in which case, I'd definitely recommend that versus jumping into this book straightaway). Thus, I didn't nearly have as much intimacy with knowing the characters and situations despite sufficient details that caught me up with the events of the first book.
The second being that the description of this novel kind of spoils a turning point in the novel that's pertinent to the plot, and I wish it hadn't because it would've made that scene work so much better. Still, I get that it's really only a catalyst for events that send Ash back to India with Parvati, and makes forthcoming conflicts that much more complicated for the hero as he faces them.
Ash's trek through India is very evocative of place and personal interaction, which I loved within the alternating turns of lore blended with humor, action with vivid life/death stakes, and attention to Ash's emotional ties and goals. Ash's manipulated several times because of his grief, but at least that grief is palpable. I understood why Ash felt the way he did and his desperation as a youth, though there were times I wanted to throw the book at him for his naivete (at least he *learns* from this as the story moves forward).
I gush a little thinking about some of the action sequences and visions that Ash has with his abilities and encounters in this book. He may be powerful, but he ends up with his back against the wall many times in very real death stakes. Some of the depictions were deliciously dark and I LOVED how they came across - fast, fluid and in the heat of the moment. Chadda has a flare for description and it shows through the turns of this work.
There's also an interesting note about how having too much power does not necessarily make one heroic. Chadda gives an interesting introspection to Ash's character that I appreciated - even considering the hero's flaws. Ash is self aware, humored in turns, other times naive, but learns that even with the things he's able to do and act upon, they can end up having dire consequences for the people around him. It's a nice punctuation and refreshing measure in a sea of narratives where there may be young protagonists who aren't as aware as Ash comes across in turns of the story.
Ultimately, it comes to some interesting conclusions as the ultimate action winds down - with a nice note of acceptance of loss and grief to boot. But then comes the ending that throws a rather blunt curveball for the protagonist (a good curveball, if slightly rushed for events).
This was a strong effort from Chadda and a new favorite read for me. I would strongly recommend it for middle grade readers who want a immersive tale of action/adventure with a strong cultural/mythological focus, notation of grief, and reminder on how the possesion power and the will of being a hero don't always go hand in hand. In fact, it can take one into some dark places that make us question what it means to be human.
Fun, enthralling story on the whole.
Overall score: 4/5 stars
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Scholastic.