The world-building of this Nusantara-set novel is exemplary, seamlessly incorporating elements of all the cultures that meld and mingle in Malaysia and its neighbors to present a truly fascinating fantasy world. The main nation is Terang, a collection of three city-states, each with its own mystical focus. Suci, the holy city, is known for a priesthood that not only heads the worship of Kudus but is also gifted with the ability to instantly communicate over long distances. Impian is a town of lawmakers and historians, where the blessed have the ability to read the thoughts of others. And Maha, the capital, is headed by a Sultan who’s gifted with the divine Amok Strength which overflows from him to his people, granting them supernatural might to back their military prowess.
The Sultan as this book opens is a widower named Simson, whose courting of the neighboring kingdom of Bayangan’s Permaisuri is causing considerable consternation among the religious. Bayangan is a state of breakaway Terangans who refused to worship Kudus. Sultan Simson put them down some decades ago, taking hostages from their royalty and upper classes to ensure their fealty. His son Mikal is fifteen and has yet to come into his own Amok strength despite fervent prayers to Kudus and lengthy martial training sessions. As a result, Mikal spends most of his time outside the gelanggang sulking about not having the mystical powers to back up his training. He’s caught off-guard by what seems to him his father’s sudden interest in remarriage, and by the suddenly cagey behavior of his own body servant Yosua, a boy his own age who was born of Bayangan hostages in Maha.
When Permaisuri Layla finally puts into motion her long-simmering plan for revenge on Terang, Mikal finds himself taken prisoner and shipped across the straits to Bayangan. There, he’s left to the care and mercies of Yosua, who turns out to be far more than a simple serving boy. The friends will have to do everything in their power to reverse the acts of the cruel Permaisuri Layla, while trying to find a way to preserve their friendship and break the murderous cycle of vengeance between the nations that claim them.
Anna Tan has put a lot of thought into creating an entirely original fantasy world that incorporates the values, beliefs and cultures of Malaysia (I laughed when I figured out what “ayell” stands for.) The amount of flavor available to those who speak Malay a/o are already familiar with the area is extremely rich, tho sometimes a little too on-the-nose: by the time we get to the woman named Bintang being called a guiding star by one of the characters, I was like OKAY, this is less sly than verging on the painfully literal. Otherwise, I loved this setting so much, with its rich overtones of current societal norms blended with the distinctive flavor of historical tales.
What I did not love was Mikal. My God, that child. Entirely self-absorbed and entitled, even his relationship with Kudus is all “why aren’t you giving me what I want?” I get it, Nusantaran royalty throughout history has been more renowned for its folly than good works, but expecting me to sympathize with this kid is a tough ask, especially when he’s such a douchebag throughout. Granted, he does make the right choices at the end, so he’s not a bad kid just… really privileged and spoiled and not too bright. Ms Tan’s writing really leans into that, for some reason, instead of his actually good qualities, submerging his (quite good actually) martial instincts in self-doubt and spending less time on his political awakening and sense of mercy than on his extremely belabored religious crisis and sense of having been betrayed. There’s a good, sympathetic character here but he’s so obscured by all the pondering and angst that it’s really hard to give a damn.
This is Anna Tan’s first novel, and possibly the first of a series. I’m really hoping she writes more in this setting but chooses less irritating characters to focus on. Also, the older I get the less enamored I am of the idea of hereditary monarchy, especially when the basis is divine right. But I’ve always believed that faith without works is dead, so.
Amok by Anna Tan was published June 1 2021 by Teaspoon Publishing and is available from all good booksellers.