I try not to review books I don’t finish. But some books are so terrible that they serve as a prime example of how not to write.
The Gatekeepers by Nuraliah Norasid was the winner of the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. The prize ‘promotes contemporary Singapore creative writing and rewards excellence in Singapore literature’ by awarding the winner $25,000. While it seems to be an impressive achievement for a debut author, when I read the story it felt like I was jamming a block of dry granite into my mouth. I had to drop it after 45 pages.
Worldbuilding, not Worldbreaking
You don’t want your story world to look like this, do you?
The story’s most immediate failure is worldbuilding. The setting resembles Singapore with fantasy creatures.
But a Singapore with fantasy creatures living openly alongside humans will not resemble Singapore in the slightest.
The Gatekeeper blends Greek and Malay myths, featuring a range of non-human species, such as the cat-like Feleenese, the dog-like Cayanese, and medusas–in other words, gorgons. Like the gorgons of Greek myth, the medusas in-universe have the power to turn people to stone.
And nobody cares.
Medusas are living weapons of mass destruction who stop themselves from petrifying people simply by wearing scarves that cover the snakes mounted to their heads. All they have to do to petrify someone is to take off their scarves — and the potential of even an accidental mass petrification is astoundingly high. Yet no one, not even the Government mentioned in the story, seems to care. There are no inspections or cultural practices to prove one’s humanity, no special military or police units to regularly sweep rural villages for dangerous creatures, no special gadgets to securely hide a medusa’s snakes, not even regular census-taking to ensure there aren’t any criminal medusas or other monsters hiding among people.
Further, because reasons, protagonists Ria and Barani, both medusas, live with their grandmother in a human village.
Why would the people allow such dangerous creatures to live among them? Why would the Government allow the possibility of medusas turning people to stone, deliberately or otherwise? Why would the medusas even want to live alongside people if they pose such a threat to humans but do not want to subjugate them? Why would the medusas take the risk of the Government finding out who they are and obliterating them?
These issues irrevocably break the story world. It demands that the reader assume that the Government has no interest whatsoever in the continued survival of their nation, that people are perfectly willing to live side-by-side with creatures that can turn them to stone and treat them as little more than humans with funny hair, that there have never been cases of medusas even accidentally turning people to stone, and that nobody thought of how to protect themselves from petrification. These are utterly absurd notions. It doesn’t matter how excellent the worldbuilding is later on; when the introduction of a story fails common sense, the story fails.
She Said, She Said, She Said
Still a more interesting conversation than nearly everything in the book.
Everyone in the first 45 pages speaks a mix of colloquial Malay and English. This may seem charming, but everyone uses the same emotional register, vocabulary and sentence structure. Everybody sounds alike, even the village Cikgu, or teacher. Without speech tags and without knowing what ‘Abang’, ‘Nenek’ or ‘Cikgu’ means (words which the text doesn’t explain), it’s hard to tell who is talking to whom. Making matters worse, there is barely any dialogue. The first 45 pages averages one or two lines of dialogue per page, if at all. There are people talking to and at each other, but there is no meaningful two-way interaction that brings out their personalities until page 37. The overall effect is that none of the characters, not even the protagonists, stand out from each other.
The prose of the story is not much better. It is as dry as rock and soft as curd. A major character dies early on, but there is no emotional weight to the text. When the Government announces a modernisation programme it is simply dumped on the page without elaboration or context. The early pages features more infodumping explaining the fantastic creatures of the land, even though they have no bearing on the story at that time. It is so very tempting to simply skim over the dull parts — but it means skimming over essentially the whole story.
Our Heroines, the Monsters
In the story world, if you can see this you are already dead, but nobody cares.
Greek and Malay myths have one thing in common: heroes slay monsters. Be they evil gorgons or malicious swordfish, the monsters are universally evil creatures that prey on humans and must be put down. If a writer wants to make a monster the protagonist, then the writer must ensure that the monster protagonist is sympathetic in some way.
The Gatekeepers does not feature sympathetic monsters.
When the Government’s modernisation programme finally gets underway, it is revealed that the authorities want to demolish the medusas’ home and replace it with paved roads and modern housing, and relocate the protagonists to a government shelter. A government representative teams up with the local police and Barani’s suitor to convince the medusas to accept their offer. Barani refuses the offer, since her suitor said he wanted to marry her and turn her into an ordinary human. The situation breaks down in a lovers’ quarrel.
Ria responds by turning everyone except her sister to stone.
Then she turns everyone in the village to stone.
This is the point where the novel lost me. By crossing the moral event horizon, Ria has irrevocably become a monster.
Up to this point, the medusas have not faced unjustified discrimination. The other inhabitants of the village are noted as staring openly at the medusas and warning their children not to interact with them. This may seem racist — but the protagonists are not simply humans with funny hair. The moment her scarf comes off, accidentally or otherwise, everyone around a medusa will be petrified. What parent would not want to protect their children from accidents? You cannot deal with medusas the same way you deal with humans.
The medusas have not experienced any actual harm. They have not been bullied, cheated, robbed or attacked. Nobody tried to lynch them either. In fact, the Cikgu offers to teach Ria at home and a villager tries to woo Barani. Nothing Ria did is justified. Nothing she did is worthy of sympathy.
Barani believes that Ria petrified the government representatives because it was her way of protesting against the authorities. That may be so, but why petrify everybody else in the village? It is not revenge against oppression; they have not been oppressed. It is not self-defence; nobody was attacking them at that time. What Ria really did was to vent her frustrations against a faraway government on innocent villagers near her.
In other words: she threw a temper tantrum.
And in so doing, became a monster.
Barani joins in the atrocity by petrifying policemen who were trying to neutralise her sister. Instead of stopping the madness, Barani chose to perpetuate it. While this may be understandable, by choosing to aid a monster she has herself become one.
What made the whole sequence so maddening was that none of the visitors in this pivotal chapter was wearing personal protective equipment. Barani’s suitor already knows that she and her sister are medusas. If he didn’t tell the government men, that makes him an idiot. If the government men knew and didn’t take protective measures against a breakdown in negotiations or even just plain accidents, they are even bigger idiots. If there are no PPE in this world that can defend someone against a medusa’s stare, then why are the medusas even allowed to live alongside humans? Why aren’t medusas shot on sight, or at least forced to live only among their own kind? Why are humans and medusas not locked in a state of perpetual conflict or at least a tense truce? Why do medusas not rule the world with their petrification powers, and why aren’t humans more wary of medusas? The chapter that has the medusas turning an entire village full of innocent people into stone is exactly the reason why humans have to treat medusas as highly dangerous creatures — but the humans in this story are too stupid to care about their own survival.
This is a failure of worldbuilding, characterisation or both. Not that I care — this was the point where I lost all interest in the book. Why should I care about protagonists who destroyed an entire village just because they were upset? Why should I care about a world filled with idiots? Why should I care about a story that fails so badly at the beginning?
How to Fail SFF 101
If a story contains fantasy tropes then it must explore them to the fullest. If a work has fantasy creatures then the impact of those creatures on people and the world must be accounted for and built upon, all the more so if these creatures threaten all of humanity simply by existing. Without careful worldbuilding, a fantasy story falls apart from the start.
The Gatekeepers may have a modicum of literary merit, but as a fantasy story it is an utter failure.
To see worldbuilding done right, you can study my novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, whose worldbuilding has been praised as ‘plausibly created’ and ‘logical’. You can find it on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.