In a literary age riddled with grimly realistic themes, fantasy novels come as a breath of fresh air. They emerge sporadically, popping up when one least expects them, and author Arefa Tehsin, with her novel Iora and the Quest of Five, proves to be the newest and freshest kid on the block.
The novel begins on a note of distress. Chinar, the young son of Professor Reddy, is accidentally abandoned on a supposedly uninhabited island even as a storm washes the cruiser carrying his father and the rest of the expedition down a raging river. Just before setting foot on the island, the excited boy claimed to have spotted a wild-haired little girl amid the trees, an observation that was scoffed at by the adults.
Almost immediately after, the author cuts across to a very different scenario and we are introduced to Twitterland (not to be confused with the popular social networking site) where little Iora is learning how to communicate better with animals and plants. The lessons are being imparted by her father and every species of flora and fauna in Twitterland appears to talk in a common language called Jungly. We learn right away that Iora is a child blessed with extraordinary abilities as is her handsome valorous father, who, among other things, has a penchant for disappearing into the forests on mysterious missions. He sets off on one such expedition, leaving Iora in the care of her dour grandfather. The playful Iora prances around with her many creature friends till a rather foolhardy venture results in the little Twitter being bitten by a Rogue Thorn Worm. As Iora dips in and out of a semi-hallucinatory state, she overhears a diabolical plan being hatched by creatures thirsting for her father’s blood.
Learning that to protect her father she has to identify the benevolent guardians of nature, Iora is forced to take a major role of leadership. And thus, the young heroine tumbles into a series of adventures (and misadventures) each more extraordinary than the other. Chinar, the human child, gets unwittingly embroiled, and — though humans are far from popular with the inhabitants of Twittterland — goes on to play a sterling role in the race against evil.
A charming make-believe world
This is a novel written for young adults by an author who is obviously an avid lover of animals and very knowledgeable about them. Added to that is a fertile imagination that can give a twist to even the most mundane of traits evident in the animal kingdom. Consequently, there is a degree of verve and conviction in the story. The quality of prose is slightly uneven, assured in some places and downright amateurish in others. The text is also bogged down by the occasional grammatical blooper, as the entire novel cries out for a sharper job of editing. A nip here and a tuck there would have made a world of difference to a book that works around such a novel concept. However, there is a wealth of information about various kinds of flora and fauna and something utterly charming about the make-believe world conjured up by the author. Crystal flowers which fit into crystal bowls to open up secret worlds, benevolent spiders that spin webs to carry the injured, creatures that morph into various life forms in one periodic cycle, a cloud whose shape predicts the nature of things to come and other marvels give a dreamy feel to the entire story.
Into another realm
Things are not uniformly pleasant all the way, a vaguely menacing touch being added when the author catapults her young heroine down into the lands of Amazons and head hunters. As she moves swiftly from one life threatening scenario to the other, being guided by some creatures and threatened by others, Iora comes across as an attractive personality, a big fighter in a small package. The concept of a unified world leveling all species of living creatures is an intriguing concept and the urgent message of ecological preservation is driven home loud and clear. The impact is somewhat marred in places by Iora and her friends tucking into food made by using her fellow creatures as ingredients — dung beetle pudding, stir-fired honey ants among other things…. A glaring inconsistency, one that risks defeating the message of the novel.
There are fleeting similarities to Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland with bumbling creatures and their endearing personalities, nonsense rhymes and all. A certain brand of madness and audacity is needed to carry off such goofiness, which is vaguely lacking here, but the rapid pace of happenings and colourful descriptions of imaginary worlds more than make up for such minor shortcomings. Tendril silhouettes at every chapter work in sync with the feel of the novel adding a mesmerising ambience. With fantasy woven around relevant ecological concerns, Iora’s story is a pleasant and informative read for young adults, one that will help them temporarily escape the harsh realities of the world. A wonderful armchair opportunity to escape into magical territories.
Iora and the Quest of five, Arefa Tehsin, Fingerprint, Rs.195.
Keywords: Iora and the Quest of ﬁve