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Dominon Of Magic And Mystique

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The closest one came to fantasy fiction in my childhood was Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree series, and L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz; 'young-adult' was a term that was yet to be coined, as were books written especially for this category of adolescents. Now, though, there is an abundance of choice, by authors both Indian and Western; and some of the better fantasy fiction in the Indian young-adult genre has been that of Payal Dhar's. After her hugely enjoyable and gripping Shadow trilogy, she is back with the first of her new trilogy, Satin.

Titled A Stitch In Time, the book is set in a world very like ours, with some basic differences in calendar and time, all of which are helpfully detailed in a note the book begins with. At the centre of the story is the Prefecture of Marik, a small matrilineal province in the Union of Nizrah and a popular tourist destination. The Nizrah Union is dominated by magic and the mages have all received their training at the Academy of the Flame. Marik Yavi, the second son of the House of Marik and an accomplished mage, is left heir to the belongings of his grandfather, Marik Avin, after the latter's death; those "belongings" consist of several bound volumes of what appear to be cloth samples, and some diaries detailing routine, everyday affairs. What saves the lot from being a mere collection of an old man's disjointed thoughts is the cryptic note he leaves behind, which says, simply: "The key is in Satin."

His quest to unravel this mystery takes Yavi to the northern region of Kuzerazi, where magic and mages are both shunned, and to the mysterious estate of Fezar, where his grandfather had spent much of the time detailed in his diaries. Joining him are his bodyguard Rindan, his young sister, the future Prefect of Marik, Fahe, her bodyguard Zurel, and Keas, a young Kuzerazan runaway who had defied his famous herbalist father to pursue his dream of becoming a mage. Along the way, the group discover secrets that challenge everything they had held sacred about magic and threaten to turn their world upside down, and contend with unfriendly strangers who clearly mean them harm.

Satin: A Stitch In Time shows how Payal Dhar has matured as a writer; there is a greater emphasis on dialogue to carry the narrative forward than on action, and both politics as well as the convoluted workings of politicians play a great role. The geek in Dhar comes out in her constant references to comm handsets, the "Intranet", laptops and touchscreen tablets, her gleeful detailing of various scientific marvels and their attendant machinery that the Nizrahis encounter in their adventure. The plot is gripping, the characters - for the most part - endearing, and the books ends on a sufficiently intriguing note to ensure you'll be back for more.

This book is certainly for older readers, ones who understand the tangled webs that invariably make up human relationships, intrigues and political shenanigans, and who have the patience to sit through the detailed explanations of the nature of magic. Care needs to taken, though, to ensure that the characters - especially the female ones - do not become homogenous to the point of blurring into one another. Not just in this book, but across trilogies; Fahe and Maya, with their independence, intelligence, courage, impetuosity, stubbornness and near identical ways of speaking, seem almost interchangeable. One of Dhar's greatest strengths, one that makes her writing so believable, is her accurate description of children/adolescents, and they way they think. Here is a writer, I think, who hasn't yet forgotten what it was like to be a child. (In the interests of full disclosure: the author has long been a close friend of mine, and it would be prudent for the reader to take this into account.) But not all children are the same, and most are certainly not so perfect. The same can be said about her adult female characters; Zurel, for instance, could well be another Chiyo.

The most attractive of the lot are Yavi, and their older brother, the gentle, patient Yanik, of whom one wishes there was more. And one can't help being somewhat curious about Yanik, Yavi and Fahe's mother, the Prefect of Marik, who seems a most unpleasant, yet interesting person; perhaps there will be more of her in the next books. An engaging, engrossing read, Satin: A Stitch In Time is the perfect book for lazy, rainy weekend afternoons.