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DM News:Review: Rakesfall by Vajra Chandrasekera

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Rajiv Moté is Dragonmount’s book blogger with a lens on the craft of fiction writing. When he’s not directing software engineers, he writes fiction of his own, which can be found at his website.

Is history a fact, or a story—and, if the latter, whose story?


Rakesfall, by Vajra Chandrasekera, is a series of stories that intentionally collapse on their way to completion, question their own truth and intent, expound on the nature of reality and history, and then morph into something completely different. Rakesfall doesn't try to invest you in a particular character or plot; it’s not in the business of setting up expectations and then fulfilling them. It uses stories—or fragments of them—as a means of illustrating a philosophical and political thesis, delivered from the mouths of a rotating cast of characters.


What is fiction anyway? Is it the same thing as a story? Is it that graph of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement, where someone or something irrevocably changes? For me, Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler was the book that first showed me that fiction could be far weirder, taking readers on a journey and showing them the sights in different ways, sometimes addressing the readers directly, sometimes narrating the readers as though hijacking their minds.


The title “Rakesfall” refers to a mythological world war between peoples known as the Yoke and the Rake. The Yoke conquered and colonized, but the Rake survived and persisted in hiding. They form an archetype for conflicts that echo through time, where the conqueror writes history, but the conquered still “haunt” the world the victor describes, a dissonance in the tale—and a ticking bomb.


This is the heady premise of a thread that connects several otherwise disjointed stories across space, time, and characters. It’s Hindu monistic philosophy in a Marxist critical theoretic frame. 



“The lesson is that false consciousness has always [distanced] our people to their true selves. The one and the others; the white and the black; the north and the south; the lion and the tiger; the colonizer and the indigene; these were all a distraction from the true and essential distinction, that the [oppressed] people must fight all forms of oppressors.”

-- Rakesfall


Who has the power, how is it exercised, and what illusions of division does it generate?


If this sounds elevated and hard to understand, that’s also my experience of reading Rakesfall. The book is full of mysterious meta-stories that don’t reach any evident conclusions, and character-delivered explanations of why it’s wrong to expect evident conclusions. “You mean that histories are true and stories are lies? No, both are true and both are lies, grandmother says. The difference is that stories have endings, and histories understand that nothing ever ends.”


Rakesfall skips among unrelated characters (of fluid genders and species), settings, time periods, and genres, and insists that all these categories aren’t real. The Hindu maya, the illusion we perceive of distinctness and separateness, is an instrument of oppression that it is our eternal mission to dismantle. These aren’t different stories. They’re all one story, whether the illusion is experienced as supernatural or as a glitch in one’s post-human sensor arrays.


It’s informative that six chapters of Rakesfall were published as five independent short stories across five magazines and nearly two decades. It has the feel of an author circling a set of concepts and, in a metatextual flourish, unifying them. Those who have read Chandrasekera’s wonderful debut novel, The Saint of Bright Doors, will recognize many of the same themes, laid out in a more straightforward way. (It’s saying something that Bright Doors reads as straightforward in comparison to Rakesfall.) In fact, the city of Luriat, with its invisible laws and powers, bright doors, and rewritten palimpsest history, are part of the much broader universe (multiverse?) of Rakesfall.


This is a universe where time is “not a flowing river of cause and effect, but a glacial ocean, whole and complete, past and future laid out full, frozen and transparent.” Reincarnation, ghosts, zombies, and digital consciousness outside of time are phenomena that reveal the lie of the life/death duality. The “akashic record” is the true history of all that is, which is either supernaturally written in the firmament, or a universal blockchain, depending on the era. Identities—our senses of self—are porous and bleed not only up and down our ancestry, but across our connections and sense of purpose. Haunting—a recurring theme—is the shadow thrown by the suppressed past on the current version of history. In this setting, the characters in various eras struggle toward various goals, but their story is really about escaping illusory concerns and seeking wholeness and reconciliation with the past—often through shocking violence.


Okay. That’s a lot of high-minded material. But is it a good read? This is a book that engages with the head far more than the heart. The ideas are sophisticated and complex.


The language is poetic, sometimes playful, with wry twists in tone and rhythm: “Until then she will not rest, nor sleep, not leavetake, not take leave, not take or leave, nor give and take, nor so much as blink.”


There’s humor and relatable truth: “Whenever Uncle rants, about history, about politics, about the injustices faced by his, that is to say their, great race, his comb-over rises up and unfurls like a flag.”


There are jokes that are jarring in their context, but it feels intentional: “Grandmother Sits only ever gives explosives on birthdays.”


For readers who read to admire the artist’s artistry and the intellectual game of metafictional self-reference, recursion, and infinite regress, this book is full of delights. For readers who seek the union of philosophical and political arguments that can reference the Hindu epic Ramayana, the Sri Lankan Civil War, and post-human cyberpunk detective stories, this is your book.


But if you’re reading to immerse yourself in characters, their yearnings, and the escalating measures they’ll take to fulfill those yearnings—if you’re looking for a traditionally-defined story—Rakesfall will actively resist you. To be fair, every step of the way, it telegraphs what kind of book it isn’t. It isn’t a tale, it’s an argument about tales, history, and the nature of the universe. It can explain, in text, why it’s making the narrative choices it makes, but it doesn’t try to win you over to it. That’s on you. I was often frustrated as I latched onto a story thread, only to see it yanked away or interrupted by a screed just as I was getting invested. There was a certain pleasure in going back over my highlights and notes, and discovering all the intentional connections. But this was an intellectual pleasure, not the emotional one of reading a great yarn.


Rakesfall is aware, and answers with a shrug. “But maybe it’s exploitative to attempt truth in fiction, maybe it is mere commodification only, maybe fabulism strips histories of whatever dignity realism might have to offer—or maybe it’s the other way around, maybe it’s mimesis that takes away history’s dreams and fantasies, makes it small and lonely and vulnerable in a haunted world.”


It is up to you, reader, to determine if that model of fiction satisfies.

Much gratitude to Tor Books for the advance reading copy. Rakesfall will be available June 18, 2024.


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