Old Demons, New Deities: Twenty-One Short Stories From Tibet edited by Tenzin Dickie (book review).

As the sub-title of this book, ‘Old Demons, New Deities’ tells you, this is a collection of short stories with links to Tibet, either because they’re set there, the author originates from Tibet or the story features Tibetans in other settings around the world. If you’re looking for an insight into a culture that is quite different from that which we’re used to in the western world, this might be the book for you, because it certainly stems from a very different way of life than anything I’ve experienced.

However, I do need to put a bit of a disclaimer at the start of this review and say that it is not at all what I expected. SFcrowsnest is a Science Fiction, fantasy and horror review site so on being sent a book that’s called ‘Old Demons, New Deities’ I’d expected this to have more, well, demons and deities contained within it. It’s really not a speculative/fantastic fiction book of any kind, although at times it does touch on elements of superstition because in some parts of Tibet this is still a big part of their cultural heritage.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I’m going to say straight up that I didn’t enjoy this book at all. I found the stories to be unfulfilling and, in cases, incomprehensible to the point that I just didn’t understand why they’d been included. Some of them stopped almost before they’d started, one of them did end with the protagonist waking up to find it had all been a dream (no idea what was going on in that one to be honest) and more than a few of them just felt like creative writing exercises rather than completed and ready-for-publication stories. Is there such a dearth of Tibetan short stories that they needed some filler or is it a problem with their translation for an audience of western readers? I’ll freely admit that it’s a culture about which I know very little, so perhaps it’s just my lack of knowledge that prevents me from engaging with these stories. It’s difficult to dive straight in without any common reference points and, as I’ve already said, I did go into this with expectations of quite a different type of book.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. There are some nice bits of descriptive writing and prose and one or two moments did surprise me, particularly in the endings of a couple of the stories that were unexpectedly bleak! I’ll mention a few of the better parts below.

‘The Silence’ by Jamyang Norbu is the second story in the book, focusing on a mute shepherd who can play beautiful music on the fiddle but is hampered in his attempts to woo the girl of his dreams because what use is a husband with no voice? Seeking assistance from the mountain gods, the shepherd journeys high into the frozen peaks to try and get the gods to grant him a voice. It’s a very short tale but it has some beautiful descriptions of the landscapes and the music of the region that I enjoyed reading. It just felt like it was all introduction, skipping the middle to go straight to the end and this somewhat spoiled the story as a whole.

‘Under The Shadows’ was another story with some very nice descriptive prose and I found the way in which the author, Bhuchung D. Sonam, wove the different parts of the story around the history of a tree to be quite satisfying. It gave an insight into the ways in which an area had changed over the course of maybe a hundred years with the growth of the tree and the adoption of new ways of life that were causing many old traditions to be forgotten. The ending was a little bit odd in this one, too, and made me question what I’d missed earlier to lead up to it as it was unexpectedly abrupt and seemed to come out of nowhere.

‘The Valley Of The Black Foxes’ by Tsering Dondrup is the final story in the book and, if you’re looking for a story that really shows how westernisation is changing the way of life of the Tibetan nomads and farmers, this is it. Covering 27 pages, I think this is the longest story in the book and it really benefits from having the extra pages because there’s time to properly explore the story and build up the characters. It focuses on a farming family who are resettled to a modern township, given a new house, access to new schools and new jobs, all for free as long as they leave their old isolated farm behind and allow the government to use the land. What seems to be a good deal at first, soon turns into a nightmare for the family and when they try to return home they find out the real reason the government appeared to be so generous. It’s quite a sad story of a family who are willing to embrace change but are exploited by a capitalist regime and, ultimately, lose everything they hold dear. It’s a sad but well-written ending to the book.

I find it hard to think of anyone to whom I would recommend this book, but I’m pretty sure that I’m not the target audience. It does give you a different world view to many of the novels and short story collections that are so abundant in the UK and US and, given a bit more depth and editing, could have been really interesting. Unfortunately, it just felt unpolished and not ready for publication. Perhaps a good idea that just didn’t manage to achieve its full potential.

Vinca Russell

November 2017

(pub: OR Books. 250 page paperback. Price: £ 12.92 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-94486-951-9)

check out website: www.orbooks.com

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