The Ghosts you Bring
Guest Post by Nevet Tachnai
It has been over a century since Chesterton argued that detectives are the urban equivalent of the knight, and the world has changed beyond recognition. In the intervening years, the image of the detective as well the image of the city have changed as well – in the real world, and in the way we perceive them.
Many, and better, writers have already written about how the image of the detective has changed (Yonatan Sagiv, I’m looking at you). And, it was really interesting to see this implemented in the background Vered Ehsani chose for her detective in Society for Paranormals #1: Ghosts of Tsavo. Ehsani, according to her biography, was born in South Africa and today lives in Kenya. When not writing, she works as an environmental consultant. Therefore, she is probably well connected to the locale she is writing about and can faithfully represent it in her story. Tsavo becomes part of the story, and doesn’t just act as a background
The result is Beatrice Knight, a London detective who finds herself required to adapt to Kenya. Knight is also a widow residing with an aunt and uncle on whom she relies for room and board, which is what any respectable nineteenth-century female protagonist would have needed to do in her place (ever since Jane Eyre). She feels nothing but contempt and disdain for her relatives, and there is also a general mutual dislike.
A Paranormal Detective
When she isn’t snapping her tongue at her annoying relations or commenting on the state of society, Mrs. Knight stalks supernatural creatures throughout London. Her task is to verify that they have a license for wandering and are not out to hunt innocent citizens.
As a result of financial straits, the family is forced to go into exile to Tsavo, Kenya. Beatrice, lacking contacts, money, or social status, is forced to join them. She is very unhappy with this situation. However her superior, Professor Runal – the werewolf who runs the Society for Paranormals – views this as an excellent opportunity to solve a few mysteries that very obviously have some sort of paranormal connection.
In her new setting, Beatrice encounters a wide variety of interesting characters: Dr. Cricket the possibly mad scientist, Kam the silent warrior, Jonas the not so dedicated servant, the mysterious and infuriating Mr. Timmons, Cilla his sweet chatterbox of a niece, and many more.
Beatrice is barely given a chance to acclimate herself to Kenya before the troubles start piling up; from giant insects to possessed zebras to trigger happy human hunters. She will have to learn fast who is against who in order to solve as fast as possible the mystery of the man-eating ghost lions.
The most obvious detective advantage (other than common sense and deduction skills) Beatrice possesses, is her ability to detect paranormal phenomena and magical creatures. Apparently she is the only person in the immediate vicinity with such a talent. The ability is both a blessing and a curse as it also allows her to detect ghosts, specifically the ghost of her dead husband who continues to haunt her. It’s a not so subtle criticism towards Europeans who brought with them their ghosts all the way from the “whited sepulchre” of London where the Heart of Darkness lies, according to the popular interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s book.
Warrior and Matron
Beatrice Knight is a winning combination of two very familiar tropes – the young female warrior and the formidable matron. The former is the fearless maiden we have gotten used to seeing in characters like Éowyn and Mulan, or alternatively Jo March and Anne Shirley; the main character who is “not like all the other girls (™)”. The latter are women who resemble Austen’s Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Wilde’s Lady Bracknell. Their unconventional role contains an internal contradiction. On the one hand they wield power, status, financial means and authority relative to other women in a patriarchal society, allowing them to apparently depart their role as women in the social order. On the other hand, these women, each in her own way, are presented as fanatic agents of the existing social order, and will fight to preserve it, especially when it comes to policing other women in society.
Beatrice, contains within her attributes belonging to both these character archetypes. Usually, when combining these attributes you will get characters generally perceived as misanthropic, haughty, unkind, impatient, and smarter than everyone else; the characters are judgmental, self-righteous, and tend to look down on everyone else. Ultimately, this results in an interesting character, who lashes out and is both wonderful and cynical; a character who makes us feel totally okay with the fact that sometimes we just have no energy for other people.
I Loved This Book
Beatrice’s antics and attitude caused me to laugh out loud several times while reading the book. She is like the best friend who likes to make fun of other people in a totally mean way, but will still jump to their rescue at moment’s notice because what can you do – it’s not their fault they were born idiots.
I also really liked the minor characters, especially when it came to how the story played with our expectations regarding their behavior and their roles. Beatrice, being who she is, only provides a one-sided portrayal, and it is usually pretty unflattering. In particular, I noticed a tiny twist in which we got to experience a small moving moment of gentle domestic kindness from a character who seems pretty stereotypical, and from whom you would totally not expect that kind of behavior.
Overall, the different characters feel very alive and distinct. They stand out without usually falling into any of the familiar cliches or stereotypes, and those that do suffer from these flaws – well, there are another nine books in the series in which they can develop and surprise us. It was obvious from the first book, that none of the characters has yet to deliver their last words.
Fun Detective Plot
The detective plot was not that complicated or particularly sophisticated, and it relied more than a little on the paranormal and our familiarity, or rather lack of familiarity, with it. This may bother detective novel fans who are looking for twisted and fascinating plots in which every minor detail comes together to create a puzzle that is pure genius. Ehsani knows how to play with her subplots and weave them well together so that even if they’re not that intricate or difficult, they’re still reliable, interesting and fun to read.
Personally, I felt the detective plot was more than sufficient. The mystery kept me in suspense and got me to read until the end of the book. Furthermore, I was very happy that the mystery is intertwined with the worldbuilding, the magic system and it’s creatures, and that the construction is slow and not at all rushed. It’s just how I like my gateways into parallel worlds.
The Lion Attacks Were Real
There was also an interesting fact about the lion attacks that I only discovered after finishing the novel. The attacks actually happened. It’s embarrassing to discover how little I really know about Kenya, and that I had to read this novel in order to learn the story. However, I am very happy that some more of my ignorance has been cleared away in favor of knowledge.
The book is based on historical events that took place in 1898, and were documented by Colonel John Henry Patterson. Back then the British wanted to build a railroad between Kenya and Uganda, which required constructing a bridge over the Tsavo River. While the bridge was being built, a pair of Tsavo lions attacked the Indian construction workers on the railroad. What they lacked in mane, they made up in daring. The lions were only hunted down and killed after ten months, and only after driving away most of the workers and significantly delaying the completion of the railroad track. Colonel Patterson documented his adventures and the lion hunting in a sensational book that came out in 1907, The Man-eaters of Tsavo; a book that was even translated into Hebrew in 1956 by Yosef Nedava Zal, and published by Masada.
In Ehsani’s book, the lions are the heart of the mystery, and they are not at all what they seem when first reading about the incident.
There is something very symbolic in how the plot resurrects these lions in a way that makes them appear to be ghosts from the past. We are now long after the sensational adventures stories that took place in Africa went out of fashion. They faded away in order to, among other reasons, give a platform for the more critical voices towards the Europeans actions in Africa. Ehsani’s story relates to Colonel Patterson’s story who brings us the story of the Tsavo lions. In a way the stories that haunt humanity make the normal become paranormal in our awareness.
The flip side of the normal vs the paranormal is the technology represented by a scatterbrained scientist and his creation, which is also surrounded by an uncanny aura, which disturbs us in a way that only too human machines can provoke. These, as we already know, have their own ghosts.
Refreshing Take on A Familiar Theme
In general, themes from the end of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth are heavily intertwined in this novel, including the laws of marriage which get an interesting and magical twist in this story. It’s a new interpretation which is refreshing and helps to reinvigorate the interest, that we still find today, in works from the nineteenth century – whether they are adventure stories from around the world, or whether they are ghost stories from the dark alleys of London, or whether they the favored love stories and drinking tea stories, which are in reality a harsh feminist and social critique, written in the style of George Eliot or Elizabeth Gaskell. Ghosts of Tsavo is a mixture of all of these and it does an excellent job of highlighting what makes them so fun, but also allows us to critically examine what makes them so ridiculous or what is no longer acceptable today – like how the British perceived Kenya.
It is obvious that the book is not a standalone novel and ends pretty much in the middle. Admittedly, the main plot is more or less wrapped up. However, the act has just begun. Personally, this doesn’t bother me. I don’t need the first book to be a standalone novel, and it is totally okay that the author let me know that I am joining a marathon, not a sprint.
Bottom line: This is a light novel that I really enjoyed. The mystery is a lot of fun, and the protagonist is amazing and very original. All the pieces have been set on the chessboard, and the game that is about to take place is going to be fascinating indeed.
About the Author
Vered Ehsani has been a writer since she could hold pen to paper, which is a lot longer than she cares to admit. She lives in Kenya with her family and various other animals . When she isn’t writing, running a radio show, or daydreaming about African ghosts and myths, she pretends to work as an environmental consultant.
Visit Vered and her world at veredehsani.co.za and receive Free Books and special prices!
E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org – she loves to hear from her readers.