(Contains mild spoilers for “The Panther’s Tale)
There are quite a few stories to love in this collection, but I want to really focus on one about a panther, an English village, and the goddess Kali.
This gem of a tale by Mahsuda Snaith does what I love best in historical fiction - takes the facts and uses imaginative storytelling to fill in the gaps. There’s something about the restraints of keeping the story’s foundation grounded in real, transpired events that I feel brings about a heightened creativity and resulting in a story that is so personally satisfying to me. Fantasy historical fiction is a step better because you take the boundaries of recorded knowledge and from that limited space take the story to a limitless potential. Snaith does exactly that, taking real events that transpired in Brewood Forest and transporting us to an entirely magical place.
Her story uses an event fit to startle anyone in the 16th century. Without going into too much detail, Brewood Forest becomes home to an exotic animal, which then has an encounter with what might be seen as the more prosaic elements of its surroundings. And yet in Snaith’s hands that interaction leads to other creatively inevitable ones, which then become fragments in an entire mythos. What’s brilliant is how it makes South Asian magic visible, seen, making an assured impact.
Even the title does labour to centre the most voiceless and brutalised historical character in the whole recorded narrative - the panther taken so far from home.
I very much love her loyalty to the facts. It makes the folklore authentic, giving it the right ring of almost-truth that makes it believable in those last few minutes before you go to sleep.
I must confess I’ve been a fan of hers since before meeting her at a Penguin Random House WriteNow workshop. Her book “The Things We Thought We Knew" is still one of my favourites. I might do a review of that one of these days.
I love that her story is a presence in this collection, with its magical saris, self-reliant Indian princess, and its foundation of historical accuracy.