If you’re a Malaysian who reads fantasy fiction and enjoys those that draw on Celtic, Norse or Greek mythology, you may have longed for stories based on the myths and legends of our land. True that we are probably better acquainted with dwarves and elves than with pelesit and bunian, but this is precisely why we need more fiction that links us to these old tales, our own old tales.
I have been a fan of Tutu Dutta since I reviewed Timeless Tales of Malaysia, her collection of eleven folk stories, published by Marshall Cavendish in 2009. Before I read this book, I had only a sketchy idea of the stories in it, and Timeless Tales was the first really decent (English language) collection I’d come across.
Dutta has since published other folktale collections, as well as novels for young readers and a picture book. She has also co-edited an anthology of short stories inspired by local folktales.
Her own stories are either straightforward folktale retellings or inspired by myths, legends and traditional beliefs and practices.
I like her retellings best. They are simply more detailed versions of the bare-bones tales that readers may have come across online, or in children’s magazines or even school textbooks. Dutta doesn’t put her own spin on these stories, so her collections are ideal as an introduction to Malaysian folktales, especially for those with no prior knowledge of them.
Dutta’s latest published work, The Blood Prince of Langkasuka [Penguin Books], moves away from the above style of retelling, but, in my opinion, suffers from the author adding too much to the basic Raja Bersiong legend on which the story is based.
I appreciate Dutta’s attempts to make her protagonist, more sympathetic than the fanged ruler who terrorised and abused his subjects with his bloodlust. I also understand the desire to make the tale more complex and layered by weaving other myths as well as supernatural elements into the storyline. However, I feel that the various subplots, characters and other additions that the author introduced have resulted in an unfocused and confusing plot. The story is too rushed and the way events unfold is unclear as many things go unexplained. Furthermore, the characters’ inner lives and motivations are not sufficiently explored, which does not help the readers’ understanding of their actions. Certainly, I finished the novel feeling bewildered and unsatisfied.
I do appreciate the book’s historical setting though and the research that went into it, and am eager to read more about the empires that feature in Blood Prince. Just as the germs of countless stories hide within our folktales, myths and legends, waiting to infect storytellers with ideas and inspiration, so are the spirits of myriad stories trapped in the ancient histories of our land, waiting for writers to set them free.