The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera

"The moment Fetter is born, Mother-of-Glory pins his shadow to the earth with a large brass nail and tears it from him. This is his first memory, the seed of many hours of therapy to come." So begins Vajra Chandrasekera's remarkable debut novel The Saint of Bright Doors. It's a good beginning, full of promise. The shock of that sudden violence. The strangeness of the fantastical act. The lurch towards modernity right at the end. It is also, however, an opening whose promises—including one that we are not even aware is being made—the novel will spend most of its length breaking.

Fetter is raised in the northern hinterlands of the continent of Jambu, the son of a witch known as Mother-of-Glory who has dedicated his entire existence to a great and terrible task. In addition to (or perhaps because of) his shadowlessness, he has other powers. He is gripped only lightly by gravity, and can float away if he doesn't concentrate on staying on the ground. He is impervious to fire. He has powerful instincts that warn him about danger and nudge him towards fortunate outcomes. He sees demons, which even his mother can't perceive: huge alligator-like creatures; "white-armed antigods" whose touch brings plague; scuttling spider-things who track spectral blood behind them. He spends his childhood being trained to kill—specifically, to kill his father, the prophet known as The Perfect and Kind, a wizard with world-altering powers whose sect has been sweeping the continent for centuries, whose schisming factions, the Path Behind and the Path Above, have been at each other's throats (and more importantly, at each other's followers' throats) for most of that time. At the age of thirteen, he is sent off with the following reminder: "The only way to change the world is through intentional, directed violence."

We rejoin Fetter, in his early twenties, in the city of Luriat, a place of seeming normality whose undercurrents of strangeness and violence it is the business of much of the novel to reveal. He has renounced much of what we have spent the previous chapter learning about him, and is a member of a support group for the "unchosen": failed prophets, cast-off children of messiahs, the spares whose sibling or cousin ended up being the chosen one of their particular sect. Though he won't admit it to himself, Fetter is at loose ends, half-heartedly searching for a new purpose to replace the one he's set down. He lingers in The Sands, the social housing district where newcomers to Luriat are assigned quarters, guiding his new neighbors through the city's bureaucracy, and then watching as they find their feet and move on while he stays behind. He develops a mild, frustrated fascination with Luriat's most overtly fantastical trait, the titular bright doors:
any closed door in Luriat can become a bright door, if left closed long enough. Any doorway that can be shut and that can't be seen through when closed, if left shut and untouched for an undetermined length of time will vanish from one side and become unopenable from the other. There may be other conditions; they are heavily speculated upon but remain yet unknown. It is also unknown how far outside Luriat this effect can take place; there are records of it happening deep in the hinterlands. The door does not change in appearance, but it is tradition that such doors should then be brightly painted.
Once again, there's a sense of promise in these passages, of the novel settling itself into a familiar groove. That mixture of the fantastical and the mundane—this is a world with demons and prophets, but also support groups, crowdfunding campaigns, and email—is a common urban fantasy trope. Fetter's situation—young, aimless, running away from an abusive upbringing and a destiny he has rejected, powerful without knowing what to do with it—is familiar from many other fantasy protagonists. The leader of his support group, Koel, turns out to be a revolutionary, "opposed to the executions, violence, harassment, discriminations, disappearances, imprisonments, pogroms, and other tools of the death magic employed by the various limbs of the tentacular Luriati state against its people". She recruits Fetter into her organization, sending him to pose as a student studying one of the bright doors. At the same time, The Perfect and Kind announces an official visit to the city, while Fetter's mother resumes contact and begins to explain not only his family history, but the origins of his father's powers. It's easy to see the outlines of a traditional fantasy of empowerment in all these developments. Fetter, unchosen and renunciate, will become—either through the internal logic of his world, or simply due to being the protagonist of the novel we're reading—the chosen one.

And then it fails to materialize. There's a meandering quality to The Saint of Bright Doors that makes it hard to write about and even harder to effectively recommend. A lot of what's brilliant about it, and key to what Chandrasekera is trying to achieve with it, can sound like a criticism if you describe it plainly. Fetter floats between multiple storylines without seeming to go very far into any of them. He investigates a bright door, and assists a government researcher, Pipra, in her own investigations, without reaching much of an understanding (and certainly without managing to open one). He participates in more missions for Koel, but remains on the outskirts of her organization, while others in the support group enter its inner circle. He hangs out with his boyfriend Hej, a comfortable, upper middle class civil servant who is in the dark about much of what makes Fetter weird and unusual, without finding the courage (or even the motivation) to take their relationship to the next level. There are moments when the novel seems on the verge of a momentous leveling-up ("The bright doors are not locked. They are not even closed. The bright doors of Luriat are wide open") which then doesn't materialize. Around the midway point, Fetter commits a shocking act, with the potential to upend not only his own life but that of anyone connected to him, but the aftermath is puzzlingly undefined. He ends up in a prison camp—a long, Kafkaesque ordeal—but it's never clear whether this is comeuppance for his actions, or a simple bureaucratic snafu.

This is all deliberate, of course, but more importantly, it's really effective. The Saint of Bright Doors is a novel about coming of age and coming into power, but it's about doing those things not as an independent actor whose special powers allow them to opt out of the restrictions imposed by their environment, but as someone operating within a specific context. Within several contexts, actually, as each of Fetter's interests—each of the personas he adopts as he pursues the novel's different storylines—introduces him to a different one. From Pipra he learns about the city's low-ranking government researchers, indifferent to politics and the wider impact of their work, exasperated by the demands of their superiors. Among those superiors, he observes subtle gamesmanship and backstabbing behind polite smiles, the place where religious conviction intersects with, and becomes indistinguishable from, political ambition. Invited by Koel, he attends a play that subversively reimagines the origin myth of his father's cult, sitting beside bohemian tastemakers who are unaware of Koel's more concrete acts of resistance. Back in The Sands, he witnesses an execution of dissidents, a phantasmagorical procession of the condemned, whose reasons are never explained. He spends the novel being explained to: by Koel, who expounds on her revolutionary theory; by his mother, who in a long monologue explains his father's crimes; even by Hej, who uses architecture to illustrate the city's history of occupation and revolution.

At the center of it all, of course, is Luriat, a place of seemingly endless contradictions: of generous social programs conditioned on a rigid classification system that sorts people into minute categories of race and caste; where a supposedly functional, modern society frequently erupts not only into state-sponsored violence, but into religious and sectarian pogroms that are tolerated because the perpetrators belong to the "right" group. And yet The Saint of Bright Doors is not a "city" novel, the sort of fantasy where the setting is a character in its own right, and learning it is one of the novel's chief pleasures. On the contrary, the more we (and Fetter) learn about Luriat—and this learning is slow and halting, only gradually revealing the city's full complexity and capacity for violence—the more unknowable it seems, the more riven with contradictions, the more shaped by an endlessly convoluted history whose manifestation in the present seems designed to defeat any attempt at comprehension, much less repair.
Luriat has too many moving parts, too many heads, too many arms, a devilish profusion of writhing shadows and hidden blades. There are the two competing presidents and matching twin prime ministers; the governor-general representing the Absent Queen, and the steward of the Absent King (unrelated); the Parliament, in semi-permanent abeyance due to competing Dissolution Orders and Emergency Regulations ... Too, there are the Presidential Task Forces, usually staffed by retired generals, that perform much of everyday governance unaddressed by the ongoing failure of Parliament; dozens of political parties, almost all of which appear to be formally or informally organized along lines dictated by the grouping and typing theory of Alabi race science; the city's Lord Mayor, who skips from embroilment to embroilment, one scandal to the next; the Council of High Priests of the Path Behind, four old, withered, venomous men in blood robes; many warlords and drug barons, most of whom are also cabinet ministers; and the two great Courts of Summer and Storm, and their mirrored Constitutions with competing claims to supremacy.
Far from learning his world over the course of the novel, what Fetter is confronted with again and again is his inability to comprehend it, to grasp the enormity of not just the city, but the world beyond it. And what he does understand, he ultimately decides he'd prefer not to—"He misses the blessed ignorance of his early years in this city, when every jackboot was the same to him." Unlike other city novels, The Saint of Bright Doors is far from enamored with its setting. Inasmuch as Fetter learns it, it is by gaining a greater appreciation of its abuses, from the regular raids on The Sands in which entire communities are disappeared, to the vast holding camps that surround the city, allegedly for quarantining against the frequent eruptions of plague or resettling displaced populations. More importantly, what he learns is that an essential part of living in Luriat is learning to unsee, to accept these abuses so long as they don't happen to you.
None of them—not soldiers, not scientists, not bureaucrats—notice or react to his oddity. He found it charming at first, how unremarkable his shadowlessness is in this city, but he's come to see it as part of a deep Luriati unwillingness to acknowledge anything that would require overturning their world, whether in physics or politics. A crowd like this wouldn't acknowledge the fact of a hinterland pogrom or a prison camp either. To them, such things are the invisible laws and powers of the world, to be left unseen or at least not looked in the eye. They hide behind unfortunate incident or tense situation or welfare camp for internally displaced persons or a trick of the light.
It's impossible, of course, not to connect this to Chandrasekera's home of Sri Lanka. There's a lived-in quality to The Saint of Bright Doors's worldbuilding that shines through even for someone, like myself, who knows only a very little about the country. (For a more knowledgeable perspective, see Gautam Bhatia's discussion of the novel as part of a recent overview of Sri Lankan speculative fiction.) The violence it describes is insistent, inescapable, and yet also inherently absurd—priests who coolly direct pogroms while earnestly calling for the adoption of vegetarianism; religious pilgrims, awaiting The Perfect and Kind's visit to the city, who schism and fight over correct religious behavior. Certain observations—"when a monk of the Path Behind is on TV calling for peace from both sides ... it means that the Path Behind is once again attempting to cull the hinterlands of the pathless, and of the races and castes that they consider low and other"—remind us that this is a setting where religion, rather than (or commingled with) race, is the source and site of most sectarian violence. 

These passages are too specific (and too bitter) to come from anywhere but reality. And so, too, is the ability of people to continue living their normal lives in the midst of this violence. When Fetter returns to the city after a long incarceration, he discovers that one of his father's top generals is patrolling its skies, dive-bombing the streets when he spots a protester or dissident. A nearby woman, carrying shopping bags, advises him simply: "Don't let him notice you".

(For the same reason, The Saint of Bright Doors is perhaps the first genre novel I've read that feels not merely inflected by the pandemic, but as if it's explicitly referencing COVID. Worldbuilding details such as Fetter being briefly detained in a quarantine hotel, or Hej leaving for his wealthy family's mountain enclave once it becomes clear that the plague and civil unrest in Luriat are not abating, or the way that angry mobs feel free to ignore the raging disease, feel taken from life and extremely familiar. This is, I think, the only fantasy novel I will ever read where a character's morality can be discerned by how and whether they wear a mask.)

Towards the end of The Saint of Bright Doors, Fetter is brought face to face with his father, the man who has committed so many atrocities and inspired so many more, who "truly believed that peace could come from ideological subjugation of all peoples of the world into an organized system of life, one that he would devise to be perfect and complete." As is standard in such confrontations in fantasy novels, Fetter is presented with a temptation: to become his father's heir, to learn true power, to be crowned the titular saint, and to use that power to repair the world and address the injustices of Luriat.

By this point, however, we have begun to suspect that Fetter is not the point, and perhaps not even our true protagonist. That the entire exercise of The Saint of Bright Doors has been one of misdirection. Even the novel's tight third person narration obscures the fact that there is another narrative perspective at work. And what this revelation confirms is what we have been learning over the course of the novel: that what is important about the story of Luriat isn't what's there, but what's absent. What—who—has been erased not just from history, but from existence. All of Luriat is built on this erasure, this banishment of the inconvenient, the racialized, the designated others, from our reality. The magic we have perceived throughout this city, the powers that a "special" person like Fetter seems to possess, are only "someone else's labour".
there is no such thing as devils. They are the people of lost histories. We see them only in translation, the only way they can exist in this realm. They come because your city is a fraying lacework; every bright door is an open wound bleeding into the water.
By the end of the novel, Fetter has found his place, his purpose, his way to rebel. Not as a hero, but as a component in a machine—sometimes a weapon to be deployed, sometimes one soldier among many; along the way, working out his own morality and the limits of what he's willing to do for change. Far from reaffirming his chosenness, the novel has reaffirmed its--and his--conviction to dismantle it. By this point, however, we see him only from a distance. We are aware that the story of Luriat is not just his, and that the greater part of the story is one that he will never know—that the invisible sometimes see the world more clearly, and more broadly, than those who have access to the seats of power. "There is an entire world out there, which Fetter never quite seemed to understand, and it doesn't much care about Paths Above or Behind, it doesn't care at all about Luriat, and it especially doesn't care if everyone here lives or dies." The uniqueness of The Saint of Bright Doors as a fantasy is, among other things, in how liberating it finds that revelation, that willingness to step back from Luriat, Fetter, and their story.


Popular posts from this blog

The 2023 Hugo Awards: Somehow, It Got Worse

Recent Movie: The Batman

The 2023 Hugo Awards: Now With an Asterisk