Image Description: A phone displaying the emerald green cover of The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din, surrounded by colorful ornaments, a large conch sea shell and a glass bottle vase holding a money plant.
I’ve been sitting on this review for over a week. Both because I didn’t know what to say and because I had a little too much to say. What to say about this book that hasn’t been said before. It was fabulous, enthralling, imaginative, heartbreaking. It was a zillion or so other adjectives I could use and still do no justice to it. I am going to try my best to talk about it, however, and I hope that you’ll forgive me if my words feel a little underwhelming. Works of great literature tend to leave one speechless and I am no different.
TDOTD is a dark YA Fantasy set in an Indo-Persian world and full of pre-Islamic Arabian mythology. It follows the lives of our two protagonists, Roma, a devdasi, and Leviathan, the son of the Firawn, the legendary, never-aging, rumored-to-be-divine and merciless king of Khansadun. The class difference between these two characters pretty much sets the tone of the story, where Levi is a higher-zaat [caste] royal prince and Roma a lower-zaat artist devotee who’s “sacred privilege” is to be auctioned off to men in the name of the goddess she was born to serve. Levi has seemingly all the power in the eyes of the people and is both, hated and revered for it. Roma has none and is thus, simply condemned.
And yet, the power imbalance between them is not all so one-sided. Both are manipulated and blackmailed into assisting unjust, cruel systems. Roma was abandoned by her parents at birth and raised by Amma, the matriarch of the devadasi’s, and must do her bidding. Known to all is the fact that Levi is not the son of the queen but a “bezaat” [casteless] bandi who died in childbirth and was raised by another woman he’s had to learn to murder to protect. Moreover, both must also serve at the will of their oppressors. Levi is an assassin for the throne and must kill whenever, whoever the power-hungry Firawn demands. Roma must fulfill her “sacred duty” service her “patrons” as and when they wish without protest to keep her sisters – fellow lamiadasis and their children – safe from both, the rulers and the people of the town.
I will not get into their first meeting or connection or how their lives come to cross paths with each other, nor will I say much about the magic system and other world building details, which are aplenty and truly mesmerizing. It’s not because I didn’t enjoy them – there’s nothing about this book I didn’t, and some of my favorite things include the costumes, the locations, the history and scripture, and oh, the Marathi language! [Dear Author, in case you’re reading, I sighed at the Khusrao!] However, what carried this story for me was the relentless pain of Levi and Roma, as well as the lives of many other secondary characters. I kid not when I say I didn’t stop crying after chapter twenty-two. There came a point where I was forced to stop reading because my eyes were too swollen from tears.
The writer has done a remarkable job of entwining fiction fantasy with real world problems. There were times when reading a page felt like taking a walk through the streets of my village back home and I don’t mean that in a light, utopian fashion because this story does not shy away from holding a mirror to hard, atrocious truths. It is, by no means, an easy book to read and there are content warning galore [See TW note below, please.] Not an easy book, I’ll repeat. However, it is an extremely important one because the least it does – and I do mean the least because it does so much more – is it makes you uncomfortable in your skin. It makes you hear how history is manipulated and retold when uttered by those who hold the strings. It makes you feel the tired helplessness and anger of standing alone against injustice and systems of oppression that annihilate all for the benefit of a chosen few. And it makes you see the lines you draw to divide and conquer, often with the help and misuse of faiths that all preach to unite.
In short, it makes you question privilege, both within and without, as you meander through the things we choose not to see.
TW: This book contains scenes of violence and killing, physical and emotional abuse, suicide and drug abuse. Mentions of human trafficking, bigotry, sexual assault, rape and sodomization.