Saturday, May 27, 2023

Hamra and the Jungle of Memories, by Hanna Alkaf

There are certain rules about the jungle that every Malaysian child knows:  always ask permission before you enter, never take anything without permission, and never give out your real name.  But Hamra doesn't care.  It's her thirteenth birthday and everyone has forgotten.  No one has done anything more than order her around.  So, she enters the jungle, brazenly refusing to seek permission, and takes a piece of fruit home to her family.

The fruit turns out to be magical and the fearsome weretiger who owns the tree it came from demands compensation for her offense -- Hamra must go on a quest to help the weretiger become a man.  That quest sends Hamra, her best friend Ilyas, and the weretiger on an adventure through the realm of fairies and demons.  They struggle with a variety of magical forces to restore the weretiger's humanity and unearth his history, which she finds is intertwined with her own family's history.

Heavily populated with Malaysian culture and folklore, Alkaf spins a story loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood and set in the middle of the Covid Pandemic.  It is a wildly incongruous setting where Hamra and her companions do things like use invisibility spells to dodge detection from police enforcing the quarantine.  That complexity doesn't always work, making the story feel crowded.  It is also long and repetitive as similar events (taking things without paying for them, narrowing escaping certain death through a surprise visitor, etc.) happen again and again.  After a while, the narrow escapes become largely indistinguishable.  A final complaint I would have is that the heavy use of unfamiliar words and settings, while delightful in theory, makes the story challenging to read and it takes a while to get into it.

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