Every now and then a fantasy book comes along and, literally, blows the doors off the genre. Sri Lankan author Vajra Chandrasekera’s debut The Saint of Bright Doors eschews the urban fantasy tropes of the Western fantasy canon to deliver something modern and fascinating. As all good fantasy does, it takes readers on a mind-bending journey that also holds a cracked mirror up to the reality that they are familiar with.
In the startling opening passage, ten year-old Fetter has his shadow removed by his mother and is trained to be a killer. His ultimate task – to kill his father, a cult leader and immensely popular religious figure. But, despite this indoctrination, Fetter runs away from this obligation and moves to the major city of Luriat. In Luriat Fetter joins a support group for the “almost chosen”, those who missed out on their destiny. Through this group he is recruited by a women called Koel to go undercover and investigate the Bright Doors of the city. Bright Doors appear when a solid door is closed and ignored for long enough. They no longer open but are possibly gateways to other worlds. Through this work, Fetter becomes involved in factions both seeking to bring his father to Luriat and those seeking to destroy him. Before long he finds the destiny he has been running from starting to close in on him.
The Saint of Bright Doors is much more than the sum of these parts. Chandrasekera considers issues of faith, of belonging, of revolution, of power, of class and race, of duty and the porosity of history. Much of the second half of the book, some of it a kafkaesuqe journey through a giant prison, is informed by the global response to the pandemic and the impact that this has had, particularly on the poor and already dispossessed.
The Saint of Bright Doors has been described by some as “intellectual fantasy” as if this is a bad thing. It is a book in which the genre is effectively used to expose and test ideas, beliefs and ways of living. Chandrasekera does this by creating an urban fantasy world steeped in the trappings of what we consider modern life – mobile phones, social media – but also informed by old ways of living including the religions, power and class structures that have been left behind by successive regimes. And then pulls off an audacious, twisted conclusion which provides satisfying answers to many of the mysteries that have underpinned the action.