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Song of Kali: Fantasy Masterworks 44

by Dan Simmons

(Gollancz, £7.99, 311 pages, paperback, first published 1984, this edition published 10 March 2005.)

Review by Gary Couzens

cover scanThe Indian poet M. Das disappeared seven years ago and was assumed dead. Now he's re-emerged in Calcutta and has written a new poem. Robert Luczak is an American poet who is commissioned to travel to Calcutta -- with his Indian wife and their baby daughter -- to write an article on Das and to negotiate a translation of the poem. But is Das really alive -- or has he returned from the dead? And does his poem proclaim the song of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction?

Published in 1985 but set eight years earlier, Song of Kali was Dan Simmons's first novel. Although it won the World Fantasy Award, it's tended to be overshadowed -- not just in length and ambition -- by the novels Simmons published at the end of the decade: Carrion Comfort, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Song of Kali is certainly smaller in scale than those epics and has a few first-novel faults. The first few chapters, set in the USA, betray a lack of assurance -- odd, as Simmons had that quality in spades not four years later. Also, the narrative has its predictable turns: the presence of Luczak's wife and daughter is a giveaway that they will come under threat, though it's no less harrowing when they do.

However, what this novel has in its favour is a tremendous sense of place. Calcutta is a major character in Song of Kali, with Simmons doing a considerable job of portraying the city as a latterday hell on earth: foul, teeming with rubbish and vermin, a place where different laws of reality apply, and an appropriate venue for anyone to sing Kali's sweet song of pain and death. And it's the place that stays with you afterwards, long after the details of the plot have begun to fade.

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