A Beautiful, Mysterious, and Haunting Debut
While I admit that there were moments in the novel that troubled and confused me, Vessel of Kali by Richard Milner is a dark fantasy myth that every aspiring speculative/genre/fantasy fiction writer should read at least once. Combining luscious prose, moral ambiguity, and psychology, it rips apart the excuse that fiction with fantastical elements can’t have the prose of so-called “literary fiction” and proceeds to scatter the remains like ash across the grave of generic convention.
Allow me to tell you why.
What I Thought Worked Well
Setting, Style, Theme, and Plot
The main conflict of Vessel of Kali is between two religious groups: the Kali’ka and the Logicians of New Corinth. The Kali’ka live under ground, worshiping the fiery goddess, Kali (based on Hindu mythology), whereas the Logicians live in perpetual, man made light above ground and worship a Neo-Christian deity known simply as Logic.
The novel mainly centers on Elara, a disciple of the Kali’ka that is suspected to be the vessel of Kali Herself. So, in this way, the novel appears to be pro-Kali’ka for the most part, right? Flawless disciples, can’t do anything wrong, rah-rah Kali’ka?
That’s what’s beautiful about it.
And I know that from the very first sentence.
Deep in catacombs beneath the golden, light-filled streets of New Corinth, sunken within black stone and the crackling, impetuous flickering of torchlight, two figures fought. – Richard Milner
While technically it’s not the very first sentence of the novel (that would belong to the preface), it is the first sentence of the prologue and, therefore, the story. Three long, meaty clauses followed by three short words. The depth of the “catacombs,” the “light-filled streets of New Corinth,” and the “flickering torch light” within their “black stone” walls — It plays with light and darkness, above and below, right and wrong in a fight with no clear winner.
Setting, style, and theme all in one. And this is just the first sentence, you guys. We haven’t even gotten into the rest of the novel. I can’t remember the number of times I highlighted passages from this book in my Kindle, but I know it was more than usual. So, please. Don’t just stop at the first sentence. Read more. You won’t be disappointed at Milner’s prose.
And, without getting too much into spoiler territory, pay attention to those “figures” in the first sentence, their roles as figures, and their roles outside the realm of ritual. Keep them close, and I don’t believe you will be disappointed by the plot either.
However, there were some things I had trouble with.
What I Confused/Troubled Me
Characters and Plot
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have a problem with all the characters. Many of the characters–Elara, Jacobs Osgood, Inos Noscent, Fallow, to name a few–were strong and wonderfully portrayed. (If you want to know why, read the book. No
soup spoilers for you.)
However, there were times I felt some characters were deconstructed in service of the plot itself. For example (and trying not to get spoilery), Marin is the very stubborn advocate of Elara. And later down the line, Marin’s stubborn personality feels like it vanishes. She is devastatingly weakened, and the change feels sudden and disorienting. At the risk of sounding sadistic, I wanted to see more of her suffering. I only saw the beginning and her end, not the middle. I connected with this character, because she was stubborn to the fault that made her beautifully human.
There were also characters, like Oyame Nagai, that I had trouble connecting with. I knew her motivation in joining the Kali’ka, but beyond that, I did not know what made her stand out. She felt like an extra pair of eyes that I wasn’t sure what to do with (until the very end, that is, but again, no spoilers for you).
And while not a character, the Veneer, the third party in this war, is the most mysterious out of all of them. Their piercings, their refusal to join either side — I wanted to know the most about them. But I could not quite tell who they were and how they began. I appreciated the mystery surrounding them, and the mystery surrounding much of the novel itself, but because I did not know about as much of them as I would have liked, the mystery surrounding the Veneer made it a bit harder for me to enjoy them.
Regardless, while reading Vessel of Kali, my eyes must have turned green with envy several times. Several moments, I couldn’t help but mutter, “God, I want to write like this.” I look forward to more from Richard Milner, a true writer and artist in every sense of the word.